Highlanders' comeback fight too much for Force
SUNDAY WRAP: The Western Force have missed a chance in New Zealand after the Highlanders escaped with a comeback Super Rugby Pacific win in Invercargill.
Simon Cron’s men led 25-22 with 22 minutes to play on Sunday when George Poolman was sin-binned for a lifting tackle on Highlanders fullback Sam Gilbert.
That was the opening the Highlanders – winless after three games this season – needed as they streaked clear to prevail 43-35.
Already depleted, the Highlanders lost All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizzell (groin) in the warm-up and then hooker Andrew Makalio (HIA) early in the game.
Inside centre Thomas Umaga-Jensen stepped up, a strong run setting up Jonah Lowe for the game’s first try before a clean tackle and pilfer on Hamish Stewart spoiled a Force raid.
Highlanders No.10 Mitch Hunt scuppered a Force try with a deliberate knock-down and was sin-binned, but no penalty try was awarded.
The five-eighth returned to score himself on the stroke of halftime.
Force halfback Gareth Simpson was impressive on club debut after the Saracens-bound Englishman was drafted into the squad as injury cover.
He set up Zach Kibirige’s first-half try with a clever short kick off the side of his boot then dived over himself early in the second.
That effort was called back, but Tom Horton crossed soon after on the back of a Force driving maul to give the visitors a lead.
Simpson then threw the last pass for Bryce Hegarty to score and, with less than 30 minutes to play, the Force were poised to finish off the winless hosts.
But No.10 Hegarty then limped off and Poolman’s brain-fade quickly followed – Sean Withy, Jonah Lowe and Hugh Lenton all scoring to steal a crucial win for a depleted Highlanders.
Two late Force tries at least earned them a bonus point as they dropped to 2-2.
“Wasn’t the prettiest but it’s a win nonetheless and we build from that,” Highlanders captain Billy Harmon said.
“We’re dropping like flies but Withy was ready to go; late onto the bench this week then late onto starting, it just shows the boys are ready to go.”
Force prop Tom Robertson also failed his HIA after lasting just six minutes, a blow for the Perth side on a three-week New Zealand swing.
“We let the Highlanders run on top of us a lot of the time; they carried strongly and if you let a team get a roll on it’s tough to stem that flow,” Force skipper Michael Wells said.
“We’ve got to grind things out and if that’s the team we’ve got to be, so be it.”
*The Queensland Reds have defied another fast Fijian Drua finish, hanging on for a 27-24 Super Rugby Pacific win in Brisbane.
The Reds led 24-3 midway through the second half, but in a replay of last season’s Suncorp Stadium clash, had to withstand a late Drua flurry and somehow hung on.
Josh Flook should have had a first-half hat-trick, dropping a brilliant short kick from James O’Connor as the line beckoned after already crossing twice.
And Taj Annan was slick in his starting debut at No.12, setting up two tries in the second half and defending well in place of concussed Wallabies centre Hunter Paisami.
Those slick moments were few and far between in a sloppy Sunday afternoon performance that featured 32 penalties blown by referee Reuben Keane.
Still, Queensland seemed to be cruising when Annan’s cut-out pass put Suliasi Vulivanu over for a 21-point lead.
But the Drua, relishing the steamy conditions, found some space and Leone Rotuisolia and Kalaveti Ravouvou raced over.
They looked destined to roll through the Reds again for a match-winner, before try-scorer Harry Wilson dragged down a defender and winger Filipo Daugunu became the unlikely man to steal possession with a game-winning defensive play.
The result leaves both teams at 2-2, with the Reds’ next task in Melbourne against the Rebels.
The results and scorers:
Highlanders 25-22 Western Force
Tries: Lowe 2, Hunt, Gilbert, Withy, Renton
Cons: Gilbert 4, Renton
Tries: Kibirige, Horton, Hegarty, Amone, Callan
Cons: Hegarty, Kuenzle
Pens: Hegarty 2
Yellow cards: Mitch Hunt (Highlanders, 28’), George Poolman (Force, 57’)
Highlanders: 15 Sam Gilbert, 14 Martin Bogado, 13 Josh Timu, 12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 11 Jonah Lowe, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Hugh Renton, 7 Billy Harmon (captain), 6 Sean Withy, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Fabian Holland, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Ethan de Groot
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Ayden Johnstone,P.J.Sheck, Max Hicks, James Lentjes, Folau Fakatava, Cam Millar, Finn Hurley
Force: 15 Chase Tiatia, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Bayley Kuenzle, 12 Hamish Stewart, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Gareth Simpson, 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 7 Ollie Callan, 6 Michael Wells, 5 Ryan McCauley, 4 Jeremy Williams, 3 Santiago Medrano, 2 Tom Horton, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: Feleti Kaitu’u, Angus Wagner, Siosifa Amone, Felix Kalapu, Tim Anstee, Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, George Poolman, Manasa Mataele
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Marcus Playle
Referee: Angus Mabey
Reds 27-24 Fijian Drua
Tries: Flook 2, Wilson, Vunivalu
Cons: O’Connor 2
For Fijian Drua:
Tries: Tuqiri, Ravouvou, Masi
Cons: Lomani 3
Reds: 15 Jock Campbell, 14 Suliasi Vunivalu, 13 Josh Flook, 12 Taj Annan, 11 Filipo Daugunu, 10 James O’Connor, 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Harry Wilson, 7 Fraser McReight, 6 Liam Wright, 5 Seru Uru, 4 Ryan Smith, 3 Zane Nonggorr, 2 Matt Faessler, 1 Dane Zander
Replacements: Richie Asiata, Sef Fa’agase, Peni Ravai, Jake Upfield, Connor Vest, Kalani Thomas, Tom Lynagh, Mac Grealy
Drua: 15 Ilaisa Droasese, 14 Selestino Ravutaumada, 13 Iosefo Masi, 12 Apisalome Vota, 11 Eroni Sau, 10 Teti Tela, 9 Frank Lomani, 8 Elia Canakaivata, 7 Kitione Salawa, 6 Meli Derenalagi, 5 Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, 4 Isoa Nasilasila, 3 Samuela Tawake, 2 Tevita Ikanivere, 1 Meli Tuni.
Replacements: Mesulame Dolokoto, Emosi Tuqiri, Jone Koroiduadua, Leone Rotuisolia, Vilive Miramira, Peni Matawalu, Kemu Valetini, Kalaveti Ravouvou
Referee: Reuben Keane