Soul-searching ahead for one-win Highlanders

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 17/03/2014
Alby Mathewson
Getty Images
MORE AGGRESSIVE: Force halfback Alby Mathewson looks to pass during Saturday night's game against the Highlanders in Dunedin

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Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph will look into his players' eyes this morning as they try to pick the up the pieces from a disappointing loss to the Western Force.

A sixth straight loss to a team which used to be the best argument against Australian rugby expansion left a bitter taste at Dunedin Stadium in front of a 9500-strong crowd.

"They've got to get themselves back up. I'll have a look in their eyes [today] and if I don't think [the attitude] is right then I'll make changes," Joseph said.

The current Force team may be better than the franchise's history suggest, but there was still very little to like about the game the Highlanders put together.

They hoped to avoid a slow start after coming off the bye round, they wanted to play well for Buxton Popoalii, who had to retire from rugby this week after undergoing heart surgery.

They wanted to put in a strong showing for the local fans, with four out of five games at home over the next month and a bit.

And they accomplished none of those things.

"We just didn't play well. We didn't play anywhere near where we did [against the Chiefs] and the last time against the Blues. You see the potential we have as a team and if we don't reach that potential we are quite ordinary," a frank Joseph admitted.

"What they showed, which we didn't show, is they were half a second more urgent and six inches lower and a lot more aggressive. Generally the team which wins that ledger wins the game."

The Force's four tries came courtesy of a soft defensive effort early in the game, an intercept, a charge down and a missed one-on-one tackle.

The Highlanders had done well to get back into the game and lead 16-14 after half an hour, but Liam Coltman's miss on Ben McCalman meant they trailed 21-16 at the break.

When McCalman was binned for a tip tackle on Chris King and the Force also finally lost a player due to persistent infringing defending their line, the Highlanders weren't able to score against a 13-man team until it was too late.

Indecisiveness which had been evident throughout the game came to a head in the closing minutes with the Highlanders dragging their feet when the game was crying out to be won.

There were worrying echoes of last year, when the Highlanders would go into their shells at crucial times, leaving it too late for the inevitable comeback.

"What I did like about our performance, after that charge down try a team could have thrown the towel in," Joseph said.

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"This team last year would have thrown the towel in. They clawed their way back, we put on all our reserves. I was pretty proud of those guys coming on in a difficult situation. Had we got the kick over we would have drawn - I don't think we would have deserved that, but that's football."

McCalman has been cited for his tackle, with the citing commissioner deeming it a red card offence.

With only seven minutes left on the clock, it made not difference to the Highlanders, and Joseph believed the tackle was only marginal.

The Highlanders will now prepare for a Friday night game against the Hurricanes, a team which had been keeping the airwaves busy before a big win over the Cheetahs.

"They had a good win today, as expected in Conrad [Smith's] hundredth game," Joseph said.

"They've had a hard time, it just shows you how fickle sport is, we feel like they did last week so we've got to sort that out."

- The Southland Times

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