Jamie Joseph will not hit panic button
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is "not panicking" after Saturday night's 36-19 loss to the Cheetahs in Invercargill but there is little doubt his team is under pressure two games into the Super Rugby season.
The Highlanders were dominated physically at Rugby Park by a big Cheetahs lineup still smarting from a 45-3 loss to the Chiefs the previous week. Unforced errors were pounced on by the boys from Bloemfontein as first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga endured a shocking night for the Highlanders - two kick restarts sent out on the full, a chip kick charged down and turned into a try to Robert Ebersohn, and a deflected pass landing in the arms of Sarel Pretorius for the speedy halfback's second try. By halftime, Sopoaga had been dragged off in favour of Colin Slade and the Highlanders were out of the contest, 30-7.
They did manage to stop the Cheetahs from scoring a bonus-point try in the second half and added two of their own through Kade Poki. Poki's hat-trick made if four tries in two games for the off-contract Stags wing.
However, the accurate boot of Johan Goosen, who added 21 points, made the difference as the Highlanders fell to their second loss from as many starts.
"I'm not panicking. I'm not sure how many games we've got left but there's a few," Joseph said after the game.
"If we can hold on to the ball and put some phases together, which was what was lacking in the first half, then we can score tries, too.
"We scored two or three in the second half and that was just on having the ability to hang on to the ball, not being too keen or [in] too much of a hurry to score off the first or second phase," he said. "There will be a couple of guys that will learn a valuable lesson out of that but, I guess, the whole squad have to learn that lesson out of the pain of a loss."
The Highlanders won most of the important stats, including forcing the Cheetahs to make four times as many tackles as the southern side.
However, they also conceded 23 turnovers to the Cheetahs' 13, and the South Africans made them pay.
The Highlanders lost Ma'a Nonu before the game with a swollen knee.
He had trained early in the week but the problem got worse and they decided not to push him so early in the season. Replacement Shaun Treeby pulled a hamstring in the second half.
Treeby faces a spell on the sidelines, further thinning the ranks of a midfield that has lost Tamati Ellison for much of the campaign.
Joseph said he had hoped to play Jamie Mackintosh in front of his home crowd on Saturday night but the big prop had been unavailable because of a sore back.
The result is a welcome one for Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske before the team heads into the Australian swing of its tour. Having leaked 35 points in the second half against the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Cheetahs spent a week in Queenstown pondering what they needed to improve on.
"Last week wasn't nice," Drotske said. "We thought that 45-3 against the Chiefs, we thought we played better than that.
"One or two soft tries [were] given away last week and we spoke a lot about attitude on defence."
Drotske and his assistant, Os du Randt, were members of the Free State team - the Cheetahs' predecessors - that beat the Highlanders in Invercargill in 1997.
Drotske said he had a good feeling when he arrived at the game on Saturday night.
Helped by a balmy Southland evening, a big walk-up crowd boosted numbers to 6300 and ensured the gate-takings were above the break-even mark.
On the field, however, the Highlanders need things to swing their way quickly.
If taking on the Hurricanes in Dunedin after a shortened turnaround seems like a tough proposition, then the following week's game against the Chiefs in Hamilton looks daunting.
On Friday night, the Queensland Reds improved their season record to 3-1 with a 23-13 win over the Melbourne Rebels, rallying from a 13-10 halftime deficit.
On Saturday night, the Brumbies were comfortable 35-6 winners over the Waratahs to maintain their unbeaten start to the season after three games.
However, they may have lost David Pocock for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The Stormers beat defending champions the Chiefs, 36-34. Stormers star Bryan Habana, who is due to leave for French club Toulon after the Super Rugby season, may be out for up to 10 weeks with a knee injury.
Springboks star Pat Lambie landed six penalties and a drop goal in the Sharks' 21-12 win over the Southern Kings, while Marty McKenzie made his debut off the bench for the Blues in their 28-21 loss to the Bulls yesterday.
The Southland Times