Highlanders hang on in nailbiter
The Highlanders managed to hang on in the face of a strong, late charge by the Rebels to score a 33-30 win in Dunedin on Friday.
The Round Eight win continues the up-and-down trend of the Highlanders' Super Rugby season, but at least propels them to the middle of the table – while the Rebels remain rooted in the bottom half.
Both teams played with energy and made a valiant effort to maintain a high tempo.
However, a succession of unforced errors and an unacceptable high penalty count at the scrums turned the latter stages of the first half into a top-start affair.
The error and penalty count continued to mount after the break, but the second half also produced some entertaining moments – none more so than when Highlanders scrumhalf Aaron Smith produced his trademark sparks of brilliance, either sniping around the edges or taking quick-tap penalties.
The Rebels, who saw flyhalf Bryce Hegarty leave the field inside the first two minutes after a collision in the air, opened the scoring in the seventh minute. The try was set up through a sniping break by scrumhalf Nic Stirzaker, after some solid phase play, and flank Scott Fuglistaller rounding it off. Jason Woodward added the extras – 7-0.
Just on the 10-minute mark Lima Sopoaga opened the Highlanders' account – a penalty after the Rebels were caught offside, 3-7.
And the Highlanders, who had a try ruled out by the TMO minutes earlier, got their first five-pointer in the 14th minute – a quick tap from a penalty in a kickable position, quick hands and Malakai Fekitoa going close, before flank Shane Christie produced the perfect pick-'n-go to put his team ahead. The Sopoaga conversion made it 10-7.
Woodward leveled the scores with a penalty in the 16th minute, before Highlanders scrumhalf Aaron Smith produced some dazzling footwork to score his team's second try. Sopoaga's conversion made it 17-10.
The last 10 minutes of the half was a succession of scrum penalties.
Just after the half-hour mark Sopoaga stretched the lead to 10 points – 20-10. However, it was reduced to a seven-point game when Woodward kicked a three-pointer after yet another scrum penalty – 13-20 after 37 minutes. And on the half-time hooter Sopoaga had a chance to kick another penalty, also from a scrum, but it drifted wide – with the home team taking that seven-point lead into the break.
The second half started with a strange decision by the referee – not sending Sean McMahon to the sin bin, despite warning the Rebels flank about the danger of the spear/tip tackle he had just executed on scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
That was followed by an intercept from captain Scott Higginbotham, who kicked ahead for Angus Roberts to chase. The TMO had a couple of looks, but the replacement was onside and the try was awarded. The Woodward conversion levelled it up at 20-all.
However, almost immediately the Rebels conceded a penalty inside their half and Sopoaga reclaimed the lead for the Highlanders – 23-20.
Aaron Smith again sparked the next try with a quick-tap penalty – fullback Ben Smith eventually getting the five-pointer after several strong phases.
Woodward (56th minute) and Sopoaga ((63rd minute) then traded penalties as it remained a 10-point game (33-23) going into the final 10 minutes.
With just on three minutes remaining Woodward produced one of his trademark angled runs for a try that brought the Rebels right back in. He added the conversion.
The Rebels attempted to run out of their own 22, from the restart, and kept the ball for a number of phases. But the Highlanders' defence was up for it. They won a couple of penalties and on both occasions opted to go for the bonus-point fourth try, rather than kick the penalty.
The Rebels denied them and the game ended 33-30 in favour of the home team.
Man of the match: Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham was busy as always, even managing a couple of intercepts. Jason Woodward was a constant threat on attack and kept his team in the game with a crucial late try. Lima Sopoaga was a mixed bag, but very influential. You could call this the Smith show – Ben Smith with attacks from deep and Aaron Smith with his snipes around the edges. However, it was Aaron Smith's snipes that did most of the damage and for his dazzling footwork that produced a try in the 20th minute he gets our award..
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Christie, A Smith, B Smith
Cons: Sopoaga 3
Pens: Sopoaga 4
For the Rebels:
Tries: Fuglistaller, Roberts, Woodward
Cons: Woodward 3
Pens: Woodward 3
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Chris King.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata 23 TJ Ioane.
Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Male Sau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Paul Alo-Emilie, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Alex Rokobaro.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)