Rugby: Highlanders beat Sharks

By Paul Lewis

Highlanders 25
Sharks 22

The Highlanders will have slept well last night despite, finally, winning their first game of the season after eight consecutive losses.

In defeating the Sharks, the Highlanders ended the agony strangely, also accentuating just how bad they have previously been. It wasn't really a night to be full of regret, though: their season left the building a long time ago. It was a night to finally rejoice and take some pride in the depth of character they showed to to cling on after building a handy lead thanks to a second half surge.

They became the third Kiwi team this weekend to scramble to victory: to face an onslaught in the last few minutes and somehow hold on. Brad Thorn sacrificed himself by committing a professional foul - a selfless but hugely effective act that inspired his troops to tackle, tackle, tackle in those last agonising minutes. The Sharks wouldn't stop coming at them, but the Highlanders wouldn't stop tackling and eventually a mass ive hit by Hosea Gear brought blessed relief.

It was what the Highlanders deserved. They played enough rugby to be proud. They played enough rugby to suggest they might win a few more games yet and more relevantly, they are likely to have an impact on the remainder of the New Zealand Conference.

They won't be bundled out the way they have been if they can keep their performance at this level. The Sharks were excellent value - full of good ideas and searching questions at the breakdown.

So much of the revival was down to the obvious hunger and improve ment shown by Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock. The front-row veterans were suddenly into their work, busy, energetic and looking a lot more like seasoned All Blacks.

Brad Thorn, making his 100th Super Rugby appearance, got everything out of his old legs and made a silly number of cleanouts while TJ Ioane, not always accurate, was quite terrific in the way he presented himself for work. The youngster can run and run and he can tackle, too.

But the lead architect of the recovery was Aaron Smith. The little halfback has battled all year without much success. His form hasn't been far off as some have made out, but he certainly hasn't been the force he was last year. Much of that changed last night - his confidence returned, his step came back and his option-taking was almost perfect. He was much more like the 2012 version of himself and with his control and direction and the usual excellence from Ben Smith, the Highlanders had periods where they looked imminently capable of being so much more than cannon

Their third try was a potential candidate for one of the best of the year. And it was no less than they deserved. They were committed in all the right areas: they were able to hold up well at the scrum and the breakdown. They scrambled well on defence and never lacked for adventure.

When they saw their lead-up eaten up midway through the second half, they dug in, regrouped and showed a fair bit of courage to regain control and get their victory over the line.

The drama of the second half and the brilliance of the Highlanders wasn't really hinted at in the first period.

The Highlanders had plenty of possession, movement and endeavour, but little to show for it. Whether it was the little mistakes they con tinued to make, or that the gameplan was lacking imagination _ it was hard to tell. Certainly, something was not quite right. By comparison, the Sharks showed the value of knowing their business. Their first try came from, surprise, surprise, a rolling maul. They spurned the chance to kick for goal, took the lineout and created space in the midfield for Meyer Bosman to crash over.

Their second was the result of seeing that Aaron Smith wasn't sweeping behind the backline: Patrick Lambie placed a beautifully weighted chip kick over the top, Bosman gathered and fed Lwazi Mvovo who was never going to be caught.

But it all changed in that second half - one the Highlanders will savour for some time.

Highlanders 25 (Shaun Treeby, Aaron Smith, Colin Slade tries, Slade 2 con, 2 pen) Sharks 22 (Meyer Bosman 2, Lwazi Mvovo tries, Pat Lambie 2 con, pen)
Halftime: 15-7 Sharks.

- Herald on Sunday

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