Rugby: Highlanders overcome fierce Force

By Niall Anderson

Highlanders 32 Force 20
Dan Pryor scores against the Force. Photo / Getty
Dan Pryor scores against the Force. Photo / Getty

The Highlanders have held off an early onslaught and a rash of injuries to overcome a fierce Force side in Dunedin tonight.

The clash between last year's champions and wooden spooners wasn't meant to be a close contest, with the Force having scored the least points in the 2016 competition on their way to several heavy defeats.

The Force's last victory against a New Zealand team was at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2014, and that barren run was expected to comfortably continue. Instead, the visitors immediately sparked thoughts of a repeat dose with a rollicking start that stunned the rowdy Dunedin faithful.

Having scored just five tries in five games, the Force's two tries in the first 10 minutes unexpectedly jolted the contest into life. They had some help - with a howler from Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne opening the scoring. The combative winger tried to throw a one-handed pass on his own line, but the ball ricocheted off Ben Smith and allowing Force fullback Dane Haylett-Petty to fall upon it.

After a 2015 season where their moniker was more ironic than accurate, the Force lived up to their billing with a physical showing which featured several blood bins and concussion tests, even causing uncontested scrums to make a brief appearance as Brendon Edmonds went off injured. Ben Smith was sidelined early in the second half, while Lima Sopoaga was a late pre-game scratch as the Highlanders scrambled together a makeshift backline.

Initially, the Force dominated the Highlanders at their own game - kicking for possession and committing numbers to rush up in support - trapping the hosts in their own 22. That tactic paid off with Osborne's blunder under pressure, before another turnover in ideal field position led to Ben McCalman charging over for an early 14-0 buffer.

The Highlanders' style of play requires belief in their defence and kicking game, and carries an element of risk. Their backline is willing to sacrifice possession for territory, looking to kick smartly, sit back, and be ready and able to strike on the counter.

The defending champions lead the competition in kicking in open play, and hold the lowest average time in possession - trusting that their defence will hold until opportunities for running rugby appear. It is a style of play which lends itself to counter-attacking play, and that's where the Highlanders pounced, adding to their array of long-distance tries created off turnover ball.

First Osborne made amends for his early blunder, before the hosts went 80 metres with an array of offloads to level the scores going into the half. After the sides traded penalties, the Highlanders' potency after turnovers was perfectly illustrated as Aaron Smith set up another opportunistic try, darting out of the back of a ruck to start a flowing move which ended with Matt Faddes giving them their first lead of the game.

The Force stayed in touch with the boot of Peter Grant, but another long-range try capped off the victory as Jason Emery dotted down to make it eight straight wins at home for the defending champions.

Highlanders 32 (P. Osborne, D. Pryor, M. Faddes, J. Emery tries, H. Parker 2 cons, 2 pens, M.Banks con)
Force 20 (D. Haylett-Perry, B. McCalman tries, P. Grant 2 cons, 2 pens)
Halftime: 14-14

- NZ Herald

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