Highlanders blip at home in defeat a worry

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014
Ben Smith
ROB JEFFRIES/ Getty
QUIET 'GHOST': Ben Smith had a relatively quiet night against the Force.

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As Highlanders fans wake up this morning wondering exactly what went wrong the night before, they'll be wrestling with one worrying thought in their heads.

Was this just a blip on the graph for a young team still figuring things out? Or has the rot set in already, just three games into their 2014 campaign?

The Highlanders, after that promising opening fortnight, lost a match they really had no right coughing up, the Force not only sneaking home 31-29, but claiming the bonus point in the process.

The Highlanders played the last seven minutes with a two-man advantage after Force No 8 Ben McCalman and replacement forward Adam Coleman had both been despatched to the bin.

But the home side looked rudderless and idea-less over the closing period, only able to muster an unconverted try to Hayden Parker in the last play of the game, with the young replacement five-eighth unable to convert his five-pointer from wide out.

It was not enough and a gallant 13-man Force side jubilantly celebrated their sixth straight victory over the Highlanders, but the first time they've managed to go back to back in this competition since April 2011.

The Highlanders will be kicking themselves. They were awful in the first half, letting in three pretty soft tries, and then were guilty of not accumulating the points their second-half dominance warranted. Their defence was also well off the mark in the opening 40.

This second loss in three matches will be felt keenly by the Highlanders. Their forwards dominated at the scrum - though not lineout - and laid on more than enough ball to warrant a much better result.

Malakai Fekitoa had another strong game in the Highlanders midfield, Aaron Smith tried hard to spark his backline and Shaun Treeby was full of hustle and bustle for the home side. But too often they spurned chances when their time in possession suggested much more was on the cards.

Highlanders' coach Jamie Joseph would not have been happy with his team's soft defence that allowed the Force to run in three first-half tries, for a 21-16 lead.

It started early with a seven-pointer to Force hooker Nathan Charles who read the ragged home defence line well, dummied and went over after the visitors had constructed excellent field position off a lineout drive.

Three straight penalties to Lima Sopoaga put the New Zealand side back in the lead (9-7) before the Force struck again for the second of three first-half tries on the 25-minute mark. Busy No 10 Sias Ebersohn timed his run perfectly to pluck a laboured Liam Coltman pass out of the air for a 14-9 lead.

The home side regained the lead, 16-14, shortly after the half-hour mark when Shaun Treeby finished a crisply executed set-piece try off Aaron Smith's well-weighted kick, but there was time for Force No 8 Ben McCalman to start and finish a move off scrum, and make mincemeat of a fairly ordinary Coltman tackle attempt in the process.

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The Highlanders did a lot that was positive in the opening 40, especially up front, but their defence was below par and they allowed the Force too much latitude when they worked their way into the attack zone.

The Highlanders would have wanted to start the second spell well but instead conceded the first 10 points to the Force in a quarter of an hour, with centre Junior Rasolea adding to Ebersohn's early penalty with a well-taken try after he charged down Sopoaga's attempted clearance.

Fekiotoa got the southerners back within 10 (24-31) with a try on the three-quarter mark, and a Sopoaga penalty soon after left the Highlanders needing a late flurry to steal the match.

They had their chances, forcing the infringements, but right when they needed to be decisive this young southern side lost their way and ended up an agonising two points adrift at the final hooter.

McCalman was outstanding for the Force, as were Charles and centurion Matt Hodgson up front, while Alby Mathewson and Ebersohn ran things splendidly inside the visiting backline.

- Sunday Star Times

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