Highlanders' thriller takes toll on Jamie Joseph

CLOSE CALL: Jamie Joseph was disappointed with his side's discipline in the second half against the Hurricanes.
CLOSE CALL: Jamie Joseph was disappointed with his side's discipline in the second half against the Hurricanes.

The try-fest between the Highlanders and Hurricanes on Saturday night may have been thrilling for fans but it wasn't quite as exciting for Jamie Joseph in the coaching box.

Joseph endured a range of emotions as his players ran in length-of-the-field tries - the Highlanders had scored four by halftime and were leading 32-13.

But then came the inevitable fightback from the Hurricanes, who got to within five points in the final minutes of a game that dished up 11 tries and 93 points.

The Highlanders were their own worst enemies, again suffering from poor discipline, with Aaron Smith and Bronson Murray both spending time in the sinbin in the second half for professional fouls.

The Hurricanes scored two converted tries while Smith was in the bin, and Murray's exit forced the Highlanders into defending a slim lead for the final 10 minutes.

"The type of rugby we played in the first half, we capitalised on their mistakes and put them under pressure," Joseph said.

"We scored some brilliant tries and then in the second half the Hurricanes were always going to come back. Discipline was a disappointment because if we'd kept our cool in the second half we wouldn't have given them that opportunity."

Poor discipline has been a recurring theme for the Highlanders this season. It has probably cost them wins, and at the very least made life significantly harder than it needed to be.

"It's a big learning to come out of that game, but we haven't learned that lesson all season. Last week [against the Crusaders] it cost us the game and it almost did again [on Saturday night]."

Even with the season winding down to what will be a flat ending, some players are still putting in top performances.

Colin Slade bounced back from a poor game against the Crusaders to spark the Highlanders backline in the first half. He had a big hand in two of his team's four first-half tries and kicked well from the tee.

Slade is off contract with the Highlanders at the end of the season and could return to the Crusaders.

He initially moved south to get more game time at the behest of the All Blacks coaches of the time, but had two seasons ruined by jaw breaks and a broken leg, before a stuttering season in a struggling team in 2013.

Kade Poki scored a searing try on the halftime hooter with no room to move down the sideline, a move reminiscent of the form he was in before a rib injury wrecked a big part of his season.

Elliot Dixon, in just his second game as an openside flanker, was into everything - including setting up a try for Aaron Smith and grabbing one himself.

The Southland Stag's ability to now play all three loose forward positions has not been lost on Joseph.

"It's only come about because of an injury to John Hardie, who was one of our better players before he got injured. He's played two games in a row, he's played very well, he'll get another opportunity against the Rebels and I guess we'll see how that launches into his [NPC] campaign with Southland and where they play him. The one thing it tells me is that he can play at various positions at this level and a player like that is valuable."

The future of several Highlanders players - including Slade, Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn - is a matter for speculation, but Joseph said those matters would wait until after Friday night's season closer in Melbourne. nathan.burdon@stl.co.nz

Highlanders 49 (Mose Tuiali'i, Tamati Ellison, Aaron Smith, Kade Poki, Hosea Gear, Elliot Dixon tries; Colin Slade 3 pen; Hayden Parker 2, Slade 3 con), Hurricanes 44 (Ash Dixon, Ben Franks, Julian Savea, Chris Smylie, James Broadhurst tries; Beauden Barrett 3 pen, 5 con). HT: 32-13.

The Southland Times