Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders too good for Rebels

Highlanders 27 Rebels 3
The Highlanders celebrate a try against the Rebels. Photo / Getty
The Highlanders celebrate a try against the Rebels. Photo / Getty

The defending champions are moving nicely into top gear and starting to look more than capable of holding onto their title.

They didn't play particularly well in Melbourne tonight and, yet, still cruised to an easy win. It was a performance that was patient and solid - built on their defensive expertise and confidence in each other rather than anything dramatically creative or deadly.

But that is the secret to staying in the playoff hunt, to win those slightly marginal encounters that have the potential to go against the grain. The Rebels, having started the season better than they ever have, were full of confidence and exactly the sort of side who could mount a credible 80-minute challenge and sneak off with the four points.

The Highlanders were too astute to be blindsided like that, though. They knew the dangers they faced and the need to keep the pressure on and take points when they were available.

That's the sort of side they have become under coach Jamie Joseph. They don't assume anything and never leave anything to chance.

The forwards cranked the handle at the lineout and tackled ball while the backs kept it mostly simply - hard, straight running with not much in the way of risky passing. They made mistakes but not the sort that were overly costly.

Nor did they make compound errors and allow themselves to unravel when they didn't execute the way they wanted. That was hugely important. They regathered, shrugged it off and got back on with launching themselves at the Rebels.

They knew that pressure would create chances and their first two tries were tribute to that. They weren't things of beauty by any means, they were the product of perseverance and opportunism after forcing a Rebels mistake and then capitalising to score.

That professional ethic allowed them to reach the break 13-0 ahead without ever really getting their game going. They couldn't find the magic formula to break the Rebels defence, but they didn't need to.

They just had to back their defence, maintain a decent linespeed and then be alive to pounce on the inevitable mistakes that would come.

That's all they did - play in the right areas, stay patient and ask questions, knowing there was a fair chance the Rebels wouldn't have the answers.

They made it look easy but plenty of good teams have come to Melbourne and been caught out - failed to play much rugby and paid the price.

Not the Highlanders. They were too good for that.

Highlanders 27 (R. Thompson, J. Wilson, P. Osborne tries; L. Sopoaga 3 cons, 2 pens).
Rebels 3 (J. Debreczeni pen)
Halftime: 13-0.

- NZ Herald

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