The Highlanders came from behind to land a bonus-point win with some great running rugby in a 26-19 win over the Waratahs.
The home side scored 26 unanswered points after going 12-0 down in the opening quarter with a real statement of a performance, proving that they can match the Hurricanes for flair and finishing. The two sides meet next Friday.
After a wobbly start where the execution was way off in defence the Highlanders found their feet under the direction of the ever-excellent Aaron Smith, letting rip in the second half when their tails were up through their dynamic backline.
His All Blacks team-mate Malakai Fekitoa was outstanding, particularly with his read and execution of a brilliant rush and rip move on Israel Folau that led to the Highlanders’ go-ahead try before half-time. Conrad Smith, the man infront of him for the New Zealand 13 jersey, would have been proud of that one.
In general bar the two early blips it was a defensive masterclass from the Highlanders, who not only tackled the Waratahs backwards but refused to commit too many men to the breakdown to hold a disciplined line which rarely broke. Physically they were comfortably superior.
Soft defence from the hosts however helped the Waratahs construct their first try through a great break from Michael Hooper. The Wallabies skipper sped onto a short ball from Israel Folau and drew in Ben Smith before releasing Nick Phipps for a well-worked score.
Allowing the champions plenty of possession wasn’t the Highlanders plan but with their scrum getting punished time after time early on by referee Craig Joubert they had little say in the matter.
Again their defence was lacking when Matt Carraro scampered over, the combination of Hooper and Phipps creating the score with a smartly executed blindside move. More of that and the Highlanders would be on the end of a hiding.
A bit of magic was needed and Waisake Naholo delivered, rounding Rob Horne with his pace one-on-one to start an attack that ended with kick to the corner from a penalty.
Twice the Waratahs prop Sekope Kepu tried to play the scrum-half Aaron Smith around the back of the ruck in one passage of play, earning him ten minutes in the sin-bin, with the hosts opting for a central scrum right under the posts against 14 men.
Tom Franklin wouldn’t be denied from close range as the Highlanders hit back, following up a good snipe from the All Blacks scrum-half Smith to make it 12-7 after half an hour.
Shane Christie was a late withdrawal before kickoff but his replacement John Hardie only lasted half an hour, replaced by Gareth Evans, with the lengthy stoppage to treat Hardie taking away a fair chunk of the momentum built up by the Highlanders coinciding with Kepu’s yellow card.
In the end the Waratahs rode out the rest of their time down to 14 men but the Highlanders ended the half with a bang, Fekitoa brilliantly rushing up out of defence and ripping the ball from Folau before Naholo scorched away for a super try just before the hooter to put the hosts ahead.
The more front-foot ball generated by the home side the better they looked, with Ben Smith rounding off a stellar attack for try number three right after half-time. The full-back hit the line at speed and had too much behind him to be stopped by Kurtley Beale, reaching out for the score.
A counter was required from the Waratahs having slipped nine points behind at 21-12 but the Highlanders were rampant.
Patrick Osborne was at the heart of what proved to be their bonus point try, starting with a break up the left touchline and finishing it with a step and acceleration down by the right, with some brilliant passing and running from Ben Smith, Fekitoa and Aaron Smith coming inbetween.
Oozing confidence and packing a ton of power in every carry and tackle, the Highlanders genuinely looked unbeatable with half an hour to go.
A huge part of that was the Waratahs’ inability to manipulate the home side’s defensive line. The longer the match wore on the less effective every attack became from Bernard Foley, Folau and the practically anonymous Beale.
Unable to commit defenders to the rucks the Waratahs ran themselves ragged looking for a breakthrough as the Highlanders defence refused to be sucked in but hit hard when it mattered, as typified by the hard work of Elliot Dixon.
As time ran down the champions still had hopes of a losing bonus point, coming close through a rolling maul with Hooper at the tail which after a closer look from the TMO was ruled out – with a second short-range bite of the cherry failing as well when Carraro couldn’t haul in a bullet of an inside pass.
Eventually the score came, Folau stepping and offloading to send Carraro down the touchline with Stephen Hoiles finishing off the move.
It was fair reward for some dogged work but the Highlanders were more than worthy winners with the scoreline not truly reflecting their dominance, in a victory that Jamie Joseph and his squad will savour.
Tries: Franklin, Naholo, B.Smith, Osborne
Cons: Sopoaga 3
Tries: Phipps, Carraro, Hoiles
Cons: Foley 2
Yellow Card: Kepu
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala’apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Peter Betham, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 David Dennis (c), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Paddy Ryan, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Stephen Hoiles, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Kane McBride, Mike Lash
TMO: Vinny Munro