Highlanders keep player options open after loss

NATHAN BURDON IN MOTUEKA
Last updated 05:00 08/02/2014

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The Highlanders may not replace like with like after losing utility back Buxton Popoali'i for the season.

Popoali'i will undergo surgery and be out of rugby indefinitely due to a serious heart condition.

The Highlanders have some outside cover with the likes of Richard Buckman and Trent Renata and might look to bring in another loose forward, given some niggly injuries have affected their depth in that area.

Buckman and Patrick Osborne ran on the wings against the Crusaders during yesterday's 28-15 loss, while midfielder Malakai Fekitoa also got a go out wide.

However, the Highlanders struggled to play any rugby against a promising-looking Crusaders team yesterday.

After letting in three first-half tries, the Highlanders managed to hit back with two of their own in the second half but were probably flattered by the scoreline.

Although two of the Crusaders' tries - Israel Dagg running 70m and Nafi Tuitavake going 80m - were long-range efforts when the Highlanders were deep on attack, the Highlanders lacked energy through the first half on a sodden Tasman afternoon.

Put that inertia down to a day of travel, or a cloying defensive effort by the Crusaders, but it's something the Highlanders will have to be wary of.

"We didn't have much ball, the two or three times we got it and looked like scoring, they scored," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said. "The guys were a bit slow to get going, but if we are like that in the Super Rugby season, it will be tough."

Joseph was drawing positives from the second half.

"The second half was a different half. I thought we did bloody well.

"Physically we met them, I was quite happy with our scrum, we came up against an All Black [front row] and then our defensive effort in the second half was a lot more abrasive."

Both teams ran a lot of changes throughout, and with the rain falling harder as the game progressed, it was a messy encounter.

Highlanders skipper for the day Josh Bekhuis was left ruing some basic errors. "A few too many mistakes, handling errors, and the Crusaders just picked that ball up and scored from it," he said.

"The scrum went well, but I wasn't happy with our lineout, there's a bit to improve on there, but coming up against the Crusaders there's some experienced guys. We did do some good things but in the end the score didn't go our way."

Local officials were hoping to get about 10,000 to the boutique Motueka sports park yesterday, but about 6000 ended up braving the persistent rain.

The Crusaders did come away from the game with some injury concerns. Flanker Jed Brown was stretchered off as a precautionary measure, Dagg wobbled off a head knock when taking a high ball and Adam Whitelock limped off.

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The Highlanders have some concerns of their own with Elliot Dixon straining a hamstring and John Hardie playing with a back complaint.

Crusaders 28 (Israel Dagg, Andy Ellis, Nafi Tuitavake, Kieran Fonotia tries; Tyler Bleyendaal 3, Slade con) Highlanders 15 (Ged Robinson, Malakai Fekitoa tries; Willie Ripia pen, Lima Sopoaga con). HT: 21-3

- The Southland Times

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