Players doing everything right, except winning
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OPINION: It's hard not to feel for the Highlanders at the moment.
They've lost their first four games of the season, three of them at "home", and are anchored to the base of the Super Rugby ladder, three points behind the Southern Kings and 10 points adrift of the final wildcard spot.
But they aren't actually playing that badly.
In all of their games to date they've won or at least gained parity in territory, defence, linebreaks and offloads.
Their set piece has been all right, and on Friday night against the Chiefs they turned in arguably their best scrummaging performance of the Jamie Joseph era, despite losing Tony Woodcock to a pulled hamstring.
Chris King, in his 100th game of Super Rugby, has to switch to the loosehead after practising on the right for the past month, and Ma'afu Fia was rushed into the starting lineup but the Highlanders forced a tighthead in their first scrum.
What a frustrating team the Chiefs are to play against.
The Highlanders were killing them for most of the first half - Elliot Dixon was going through the line at will, while John Hardie and Liam Coltman had little trouble getting over the advantage line, but when they looked up at the scoreboard after 10 minutes they found themselves down 10-nil.
Just like the opening round loss in Dunedin, it was the freakish try-scoring ability of Tim Nanai-Williams and the accurate boot of Gareth Anscombe which proved the difference.
Joseph was a frustrated man as he watched a replay the day after the game.
He was scratching his head over a number of refereeing decisions, although it should be pointed out that the Highlanders' only try came when Aaron Smith was able to score down the blindside with Jarrad Hoeata clearly holding back Chiefs skipper Liam Messam.
"You feel for the players because the games are so tight, and tough, that those opportunities have generally been the difference between winning and losing for us," Joseph said. "We have to be more accurate with looking after the ball and making sure that when we have those one-pass opportunities to score, that we take them."
The Highlanders just weren't good enough at the crucial times in the game. As they have all season, they created opportunities but weren't able to pull the trigger. Factor in some outstanding goal-line defence from the Chiefs and you had the Highlanders' fourth loss on the bounce and a tough match against the Reds in Dunedin on Friday next up.
"We just aren't getting the rub of the green. There were intentional knock-ons, there were tries, killing of the ball on the line. Potentially it could have been frustrating for the team and I guess that's what I'm really proud of, in terms of the uncontrollables around injuries, around conditions, around decisions, hasn't affected them," Joseph said.
"The media have made a lot of the seasoned All Blacks that we've got, but Jason Emery, Elliot Dixon, Liam Coltman coming in for injured players . . . they are all replacing All Blacks really and they were all standouts for our team. That's a good sign for our future."
Joseph believes his team won't give in despite their awful start to the 2013 season.
"I don't think that's the type of guys they are. In terms of the leadership around the team and the experience. Everyone is looking in the mirror, they aren't looking anywhere else. We can't control the bounce of the ball or refereeing decisions, or use that as an excuse for our mistakes. We've just got to get better at what we aren't doing so well, put that to one side and just get on with it."
- © Fairfax NZ News