John Hardie has carried his form with Southland last year into this year's Super Rugby campaign.
Hardie, the Stags player of the season in 2011, was again strong off the side of the scrum for the Highlanders on Saturday night as they eked out an 18-17 win over the Waratahs to remain unbeaten after three rounds.
It was his try, 10 minutes after halftime, which saw the Highlanders finally get some reward for the dominance they had over the Waratahs up until that point.
Despite a heavy advantage in all the statistics, the Highlanders found themselves trailing by six in the only one that really counts – the scoreboard – after Waratahs flanker Pat McCutcheon managed to somehow score despite an ugly ankle injury which left him writhing in pain afterwards.
Down 14-8 the Highlanders struck back almost immediately, finally finding a way to exploit an overlap which had been there for most of the game, with Hardie a grateful recipient on the end of some tidy finishing play.
Colin Slade's sideline conversion gave the Highlanders the lead for the first time in the game and then he and Daniel Halangahu traded penalties to round out the scoring.
The game finished with the Waratahs trying to steal it in the final play, with the ball spilling free from a ruck and Jamie Mackintosh leaping on to it in delight.
Jimmy Cowan, on as a second half replacement for Aaron Smith, then blew the attempted clearance with his kick ballooning out to winger Buxton Popoali'i before it was safely sent into touch.
The Waratahs were a brave outfit, seemingly out on their feet for much of the game but still able to stifle the Highlanders' attempts to put the game away.
The Highlanders at times looked like a team on the end of a very big three weeks, not quite able to muster the timing and power to throw the knockout punch.
"They came on with some pretty big boys and they [were] just coming and coming," Hardie said after the game.
"They definitely took it to us. They knew they were going to have to match us at the breakdown and they did, especially on our ball. They counter-rucked and made it scrappy for us a lot of the time."
The Highlanders deserve plenty of credit for winning a game they would have lost two seasons ago.
In front of a raucous crowd of 17,670, they dug deep in the second half and produced the ball they needed to win.
Aaron Smith was again a precocious talent at halfback, opting for a quick tap after 15 minutes from which he scored his team's opening try.
The nuggety halfback's passing is a revelation – a little like a cannon being fired from a canoe, but a lot more successful.
Not all his options are the right ones but his potential is exciting.
A second quick tap has hurt the Highlanders with Lima Sopoaga suffering a shoulder injury which is expected to see him out of the game for three or four weeks.
The Highlanders will now look to the recovery of Chis Noakes, who started the season opener against the Chiefs and looked good before rolling an ankle.
Colin Slade, who started the game on Saturday night at fullback and then moved in to replace Sopoaga, looks well short of his best after off-season groin and hernia problems.
On Saturday night he seemed reluctant to stretch out when kicking in general play or running and his goalkicking is also suffering.
Having started the season with a horror injury toll, the Highlanders find themselves in a similar quandary as last year – relying heavily on the same core group of players.
Adam Thomson was huge for the Highlanders on Saturday night, but he cannot play the entire season like that.
Mackintosh, celebrating his 50th game for the franchise with a stormer, also knows the danger of running to a standstill.
The Highlanders do have good depth in some areas – hooker, halfback – but in most others there are major concerns.
Chris King did not train last week as he concentrated on getting right a groin injury which refuses to go away in time to play the Waratahs, and many of his team-mates will be on light duties this week before the flight to the capital.
Against the Hurricanes in Wellington this weekend the Highlanders will come up against another young team flushed with early season success.
After two emotional games in their new Fortress Dunedin, it will be an important stage in the season for Joseph's team and an important test of their resolve.
Highlanders 18 (Aaron Smith, John Hardie tries; Colin Slade 2 pen, conv) Waratahs 17 (Pat McCutcheon try; Daniel Halangahu 4 pen) HT: 8-9
- © Fairfax NZ News
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