Lethargic Highlanders struggle to get going

NATHAN BURDON IN QUEENSTOWN
Last updated 05:00 16/02/2013

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The Highlanders will look to regroup this week after taking a step backwards in last night's 31-29 pre-season loss to the Blues in Queenstown.

Jamie Joseph's side looked oddly lethargic through most of the first half and found itself trailing 28-19 against a committed Blues side.

"We obviously didn't start well, not sure why, but we were pretty flat in that first 40 minutes," Joseph said.

Stand-in skipper Hosea Gear scored just before halftime and then twice in the only tries of the second half to give the Highlanders a 29-28 lead, which might have given them a misleading victory in front of 4000 fans at the Recreation Ground.

But when referee Chris Pollock awarded the Blues a penalty in front of the posts in the final minute of the game, Baden Kerr gratefully stepped up and nailed the gamewinner.

Blues coach John Kirwan was pleased with the trip.

"Great pre-season hitout. I thought it was tough, all the things you need. We are happy we've got no injuries, still plenty to work on, but really happy with the hitout," Kirwan said.

"I thought we did some really good things right across the 80 minutes and some bad things. That's what pre-season is about."

The Highlanders were disappointed with a lineout which misfired for the second week in a row, with Brayden Mitchell and Liam Coltman struggling to hit their marks.

The game was messy throughout, with the Highlanders coming off second in the contact areas after battling to get their hands on the ball and their heads into the game in the first half.

The second half was better, but still below the standard the Highlanders had set against the Crusaders in Oamaru last week.

"The Blues fronted at the breakdown, outplayed us," Joseph said.

"It was a very similar game to the Chiefs, in terms of our efforts around that area.

"We got that right against the Crusaders and then we didn't get that right today for 50 minutes. I thought the first 40-50 minutes they taught us a lesson at the breakdown."

The Highlanders will look to bring some of their best players back into the equation this week, with Brad Thorn, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith sitting out last night's game while they rested annoying injuries.

Replacement flanker Hugh Blake will join the Highlanders' casualty ward after injuring a shoulder, while Joe Wheeler also picked up a knock to the shoulder and Josh Bekhuis rolled an ankle.

The Highlanders open their season against the Chiefs in Dunedin on Friday, while the Blues take on the Hurricanes the following night.

AT A GLANCE

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Blues 31 (Culum Retallick, George Moala, Tom McCartney, Piri Weepu tries; Weepu 4 con, Baden Kerr pen) Highlanders 29 (Jarrad Hoeata, Joe Wheeler, Hosea Gear 3 tries; Hayden Parker 2 con).

HT: 28-19

THE GOOD

Hosea Gear has scored five tries in three games for the Highlanders during the preseason, something he struggled with last season.

THE BAD

The Highlanders lineout is under pressure ahead of the season opener against the Chiefs.

THE RUGBY

Definitely a step back against a committed Blues team which is obviously keen to put the horrors of last season behind it.

- The Southland Times

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