Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Short-handed Highlanders lose close battle with Sharks

Matt Faddes of the Highlanders prepares to kick during the round nine Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo / Getty Images.
Matt Faddes of the Highlanders prepares to kick during the round nine Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo / Getty Images.

HIGHLANDERS 14
SHARKS 15

It was only inches wide, but Liam Sopoaga's late drop goal was wide and the costliness of that could be substantial.

Home wins are vital and this was a bad loss for the Highlanders despite them playing heroically for 68 minutes with 14 men. They gave it everything, but it wasn't enough and that may come back to bite them.

The reason their performance was so heroic was that the game took on an entirely different complexion than pre-match expectations when Jason Emery was sent off after 12 minutes for taking Willie le Roux out in the air.

It had to be a red card despite Emery's obvious lack of intent. The facts of the matter were clear - le Roux was lucky to avoid a serious neck injury and the game has to protect those whose feet leave the ground.

With Emery off it was always going to be a huge battle for the Highlanders even though the Sharks had two yellow cards along the way.

The Highlanders can take some pride in their bravery and workrate, but that won't stop them being hugely disappointed.

And not will they have been aware that for all the resourcefulness, there was still an element of untidiness and anxiety to their play.

It was evident in their last game against the Reds and they haven't cured themselves entirely. It manifests as small, frustrating errors - the sort that have coaches watching their game with their hands sliding down their face, grateful that not many people can lip read.

There were too many occasions when the Highlanders spilled ball they shouldn't have.

Simple errors of being a bit loose in the contact of focusing more on the defence than where the pass was coming from.

It will be troubling them because their title-winning campaign last year was built on their relentless accuracy. They didn't give much away and their accuracy was impressive.

In the first half alone they made eight handling errors - doubly frustrating on a night when they were a man down, making it crucial they took their opportunities.

But if there is one thing the Highlanders haven't lost, it's their character. They know how to dig in and work though their issues. They made some strong adjustments in the second half - playing with the same ambition, but more care.

They had to find ways to lessen the workload of their back three who were having to cover an enormous amount of ground on defence. There was more pick and go around the ruck.

Which was partly about the forwards taking on a greater share of the work, but it was also about forcing the Sharks pack into having to defend more. There's no doubt the Sharks are a team that prefer playing without the ball and that they were physical and punishing with their tackling. The Highlanders were happy to keep coming at them, though, to keep pounding up the middle and recycling. Hard yards they were, but they were going forward, keeping possession and sapping the Sharks.

They were also giving themselves the chance to score points and they came through the boot of Lima Sopoaga and then one moment of finishing magic from Matt Faddes who managed to stretch over after losing his feet.

Highlanders 14 (M. Faddes tries; L. Sopoaga 3 pens)
Sharks 15 (G. April 5 pens)

- NZ Herald

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