Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Highlanders shine in triumph

Hosea Gear of the Highlanders makes a break during the round six Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Melbourne Rebels at Rugby Park Stadium. Photo / Getty Images.
Hosea Gear of the Highlanders makes a break during the round six Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Melbourne Rebels at Rugby Park Stadium. Photo / Getty Images.

Mark down Smith and Smith because they should be in the All Black notebooks. They are not a southern legal firm but two Highlanders who dealt out rugby justice last night in Invercargill to the Rebel invaders.

Halfback Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith starred in a rousing 43-12 victory as the Highlanders mocked the miserly margins in their four previous victories this season.

That sequence showed four, three, two and one-point advantages but as the Highlanders headed to their most southern ground in Invercargill, their winning margin soared north.

The Smiths brought allround eye-catching quality as did flanker Adam Thomson in a three-try return to action - after a week away with injury- with a fourth rubbed out by the TMO. Behind the flashy stuff were men like Nasi Manu, Jason Rutledge and Josh Bekhuis who brought the toil so the athletes could strut their stuff in the comprehensive second-half shutout.

The game began at a frantic pace and barely subsided. The Highlanders planned to stretch the visitors to the flanks and if those avenues were closed, then press through the middle, but the Rebels brought a grit to their game which has not always been seen.

Their defensive line was bent and pushed but survived most of the examinations and when they got their mitts on the ball, the Rebels made some serious inroads.

The restored Wallaby duo of Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor kept probing and teasing with their footwork, speed and skills. Several times the Rebels sniffed the chalk but were repelled.

But it was at a cost, as O'Connor kicked penalties for Highlanders infringements and the Force held the 9-0 lead after half an hour. The crowd in Invercargill were fretting and similar anxieties showed in some of the Highlanders' play.

They pushed their passes a little quicker, left their feet at rucks or ran into gaps without support.

However they had fullback Ben Smith who continued to push into a variety of attacking zones and the chief tormentor eventually claimed the opening try when he bounced two weary tacklers out of the way.

There was some fortune involved as the officials missed a forward pass which would have nullified the touchdown and allowed the Force to reclaim centre Lloyd Johansson from his time in the the sinbin. O'Connor extended the lead with another penalty before the Highlanders evened the scoreline three minutes into oranges time.

They tapped a penalty and zipped backwards and forwards across the turf before Hosea Gear floated a pass over some tired defenders to Adam Thomson to score.

Coach Jamie Joseph was blunt in his halftime speech as he demanded a reduction in the mistakes and penalties. He wanted the Highlanders to persevere with the up-tempo tactics with a tweak.

"Play at the right end of the field and let's get into them," he ordered.

Within five minutes, his commands brought some dividends. Thomson claimed his second try from a superb cutout pass from prop Chris King and then after a turnover, halfback Aaron Smith's box kick into the deadball area saw Kade Poki first to the touchdown.

That scoring onslaught sapped the Rebels' resistance and with it some of their will. Their passion for tackling eased a shade, they lacked their previous sting to get off the line and their hits were not as accurate. Somehow Kupa Vuna escaped a warning or card for a tip tackle on Poki which was at least as dangerous as Johansson's earlier misdemeanour.

But the punishment came in other forms. In a style change-up, the Highlanders rumbled around the fringes before skipper Jamie Mackintosh pounded over for a try and was rewarded with a rest for the final quarter as the hosts unleashed their scoring turbos.

- NZ Herald

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