Thursday, March 01, 2012

Highlanders show mettle ahead of Crusaders NATHAN BURDON 27/02/2012

OPINION: Hands up if you picked the Highlanders to win their season opener against the Chiefs on Saturday night.
No, didn't think so.
And we had every right to be a bit cautious with our predictions, based on the evidence we had been given.
Comfortably beaten in each of their three trial games, the Highlanders have also been going through an injury crisis of plague-like proportions.
Key players have either been making cautious returns after offseason surgery, or became early season casualties in a rapidly mounting injury toll.
Hosea Gear missed a trial to play sevens for New Zealand in Wellington.
Two high profile signings – Tamati Ellison and James Haskell – missed all the buildup because of their Japanese club commitments.
In the final trial game they were forced to bring the franchise's 37-year-old scrum coach Kees Meeuws temporarily out of retirement. The team naming was delayed last week partly to make sure there were enough fit bodies around to put a side together.
For large stages of the past few weeks head coach Jamie Joseph has had a third of his squad unavailable for training.
The Highlanders came up against a Chiefs team on Saturday night still basking in the associated aura that comes with offseason signing Sonny Bill Williams.
Their backline was made up almost entirely of players who have reached international status.
The Highlanders centre pairing was made up of Phil Burleigh, who had been plucked from the Chiefs wider training squad two weeks before, and Ellison, who had arrived from Japan just a few hours before.
They were squaring off against Williams and fellow All Black Richard Kahui. No small task there.
While the home team's forward unit did not possess the same star quality, it is a pack which is desperate to prove itself.
So when the Highlanders found themselves trailing 19-9 soon after halftime, having done a huge amount of work in the first half, it was easy to imagine the Chiefs running in several late tries.
The arrival of Aaron Smith into the game, replacing Jimmy Cowan, seemed to spark the Highlanders with half an hour to go.
Smith's energy and enthusiasm sparked the Highlanders just when they needed it most.
Along with Ellison, whose work rate suggested he could have swum from Japan to Hamilton if he had wanted to, Adam Thomson and John Hardie, and the impact provided from the bench by Jason Rutledge and James Haskell, the Highlanders started to bustle the Chiefs off the ball.
Smith's try, running hard onto a perfectly timed Thomson short pass, got the Highlanders within three points going into the final quarter and then Burleigh scooted in after Rutledge showed enormous presence of mind when charging down a clearing kick and then regathering to provide the final pass.
Chris Noakes, something of a surprise selection ahead of Lima Sopoaga at first-five, was a quiet revelation in the No10 jersey, distributing and kicking well.
He also landed a perfect five from five from the tee for 13 points before hobbling out of the game with an injury to his left ankle.
The Chiefs were unlucky to lose prop Ben Afeaki early in the game and wing Lelia Masaga and halfback Brendon Leonard when their attacking ability was sorely needed.
But nothing should take away from a truly noteworthy Highlanders' win.
The Highlanders played as much rugby as they had to, given the limited time they have had to bed in combinations.
Their set piece was strong, with Jamie Mackintosh leading the way in the scrums and Josh Bekhuis enjoying a whale of a game in general, while Thomson was strong in the lineouts.
They scrambled well on defence and held tight over the closing stages as the Chiefs pushed for a game-winner.
It was the sort of performance which had the Highlanders drawing rave reviews last year and it couldn't have come at a better time with Joseph's men set to play their first game in the Dunedin Stadium on Saturday, against the Crusaders no less.
There hasn't been a lot to get excited about in Highlanders rugby over the past seven or eight years, but this indoor fixture has now been set up perfectly.

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