Highlanders eye another frustrating finish
The finish is brutal, and the last two weeks have been a little soul-destroying, but if you had told the Highlanders at season's start they would head into the June break somewhere round the top-six cutoff they would have taken that in a heartbeat.
So, after another last-ditch defeat (38-31) on Friday night against the lowly Queensland Reds, it was with mixed emotions that Jamie Joseph and his men staggered, rather than swaggered, into the three-week hiatus.
On 31 points from 13 games, they lie just three points behind the conference-leading Crusaders and will end the weekend somewhere on the bubble of the top six overall.
But the "what-ifs" are starting to rack up for the Highlanders. A week ago they were cursing their luck as Patrick Osborne's game-winning lunge for the corner against the Crusaders was ruled out by the TMO.
Once again in Brisbane on Friday night the decision didn't go the southerners' way and they had to make do with two bonus points from a gallant losing cause.
This time a controversial TMO decision to deny what looked a legitimate Ben Smith try with 10 minutes left hurt the Highlanders. All Black squad member Malakai Fekitoa was ruled to have taken out a Reds defender running a dummy line - a borderline call that stymied an impressive comeback.
The Highlanders still should have salvaged a 31-31 draw when Fumiaki Tanaka's lunge over the ruck levelled the scores with just seconds left. But the Highlanders chanced their arm after the hooter, chased the victory, and paid the price when the Reds went 18 phases up field to secure a meritorious try to No 8 Jake Shatz.
In the end the Highlanders were left ruing a poor first half that saw them head into the sheds trailing 21-0.
The correction came, as did the tries, but in the final accounting the men from Dunedin once again finished with fewer points than their ability, and tenacity, probably warranted.
"It was a must-win game and to perform like we did in that first half was pretty frustrating," said assistant coach Tony Brown yesterday.
Brown, though, had no qualms with the late decision by Phil Burleigh not to seek touch and bank the draw. "The boys wanted to win the game and the best way to do that was to get field position first. But we just didn't quite get a good enough kick in, and our defence didn't quite handle their attack."
Brown, like Jamie Joseph, felt the Smith non-try was a "50-50", adding: "We've had a couple of those the last two weeks - maybe our next game against the Chiefs we'll get one go our way."
But in a finish that sees them meet the Chiefs (home), Waratahs and Crusaders (both away) Brown acknowledges there's a lot to improve.
Top of that list is the lineout.
"But we've got our destiny in our hands, and if we perform well over the last three rounds we've got a chance to make the playoffs."