They've put four more points on the board, but there's something not quite right with the Highlanders at the moment.

An 18-15 victory over the Reds has continued a sluggish stretch of play for the southerners, who have now gone a month without a convincing performance.

It's not all bad – they're still picking up enough victories to be sitting handily in the playoff positions, but with three Kiwi derbies upcoming, they need to be better. Much better.

There's a ready-made excuse for their struggle to put away the Reds, with the Highlanders having rested four of their All Blacks, but requiring a 77th minute Lima Sopoaga penalty to eke out the win surely won't have impressed stand-in coach Mark Hammett.

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All up, it was an uninspired watch. The Reds favour a conservative style of rugby, trying to string together phases and rarely throwing offloads. When combined with the Highlanders' high line speed, tactical kicking and attacking stumbles, it led to a sloppy start.

The Highlanders regularly play without possession, but they were taking it to the extremes in the first half. They made just 89 running metres, and were forced into 73 tackles, and while they took the early lead through a Tevita Li try, the Reds soon turned their possession into profit.

Tries either side of halftime to Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Hamish Stewart gave the Reds a 15-8 lead, and that seemed to finally serve as a wake-up call for the Highlanders.

Suddenly they were playing positively, and their first lengthy spell of pressure saw Liam Squire barge over from close range to tie things up. That turning point led to the Highlanders taking control, but as much as they tried, they initially couldn't break the Reds.

The visitors had a try disallowed for a knock-on, before Squire was desperately cut down when sprinting for the corner.

Time ticked by, but just as it looked like a draw was on the cards, a high tackle gave Sopoaga the opportunity to be the saviour, and he duly delivered.

Highlanders 18 (T Li, L Squire tries; L Sopoaga con, 2 pens)
Reds 15 (B Paenga Amosa, H Stewart tries; J Lance con, pen)
HT: 8-10