Otago Highlanders - News

Highlanders knock Reds out cold with crushing win
By Brent Edwards

Invercargill: It used to be the Invercargill bogey. Last night, it was the Invercargill march as the Highlanders began their Super 12 campaign with a crushing win over the Queensland Reds at Rugby Park.

The Highlanders have seldom played well in Invercargill, and suffered some embarrassing losses, but last night they could scarcely have been more impressive. They scored five tries to one, they were never threatened on the scoreboard, and the cold but enthusiastic crowd estimated at 12,000 rose to them as they left the field. It was a commanding performance by the Highlanders on a wild and woolly night which felt much more like mid-winter than mid-winter.

The conditions were far removed from those in Queensland - a strong southerly and squally showers chilled the bones - and the Reds were never in the contest. The Highlanders, who lost the toss and were given the wind, had a match-winning advantage as they played some clinical rugby to lead 27-0 at half-time. It was a hard slog for the Highlanders into the elements in the second spell but they did not flinch and the Reds' only try was a consolation effort.

Queensland has never won against the Highlanders in New Zealand and this was never going to be the night. It had the enthusiasm but not the finesse; the Highlanders had both.

Lock Filipo Levi had only scored one Super 12 try in his career before the game. Last night, he scored two and was impressive in an impressive pack. The Highlanders had the advantage at scrum-time, Anton Oliver led from the front (the only way he knows), Simon Maling was dominant in the line-outs and at kick-offs and prop Carl Hayman made a remarkable number of tackles as the defence held firm. Sam Harding, Josh Blackie and Craig Newby were a classy loose trio but it was a strong performance by the entire pack. Jimmy Cowan had a strong debut at halfback - the youngest veteran in the business - and he and Tony Brown combined well. Brown was pivotal to the Highlanders, running the game with authority from first five-eighth. Not only did he kick his goals, he kicked well to space, tackled tigerishly and ran the ball strongly to the line. Ryan Nicholas and Seilala Mapusua defended strongly in midfield and right wing Aisea Tuilevu looked for work and was involved in a lot of play. Five of the bench - Grant Webb, Iliesa Tanivula and Nick Evans and Southlanders Clarke Dermody and Daniel Quate - got on the field, and that made the night for the happy Southland crowd.

The Highlanders had a healthy lead at half-time after they made a dream start to the tournament opener. Levi scored in the second minute when, after a line-out take by locking partner Maling and three phases, he crashed over. Tuilevi scored 12min later when, after a neat break by Harding and four phases, he was driven over by the omnipresent Blackie. Oliver displayed his special skills a minute later when he broke clear down the terrace touch, chipped ahead with his left foot and put the Reds under severe pressure. It was Tuilevu who set up the third try, after 30min, when he gathered a poor kick, breached the defence in a weaving run and Blackie burst over from the ruck. Brown kicked with precision, five from five, and it was a satisfied Highlanders side which left the field at the break.

They had attacked strongly and their defence had been equal to the task on the rare occasions the Reds threatened. Left wing Peter Hynes was held up in goal by staunch defence from Cowan and Mapusua, and midfielder Tim Atkinson had the ball jolted from his grasp by a desperate tackle as he lunged for the line. The Highlanders struck a major psychological blow when they scored their fourth (bonus point) try into the wind 8min into the second spell.

Again, it came from a drive from a Maling line-out take. They worked the ball well for five or six phases and Levi, with excellent low body position, powered over. Oliver almost scored what would have been an extremely popular try midway through the spell but referee Tappe Henning ruled he had not got the ball down. It came after the Highlanders retained the ball skilfully for eight phases, Cowan ran the blind and Oliver, in support, came agonisingly close scoring the fifth try.

The Reds finally scored 14min from the end, replacement hooker Sean Hardman crashing over from a line-out drive from a penalty, but the Highlanders, fittingly, had the final say. Queensland lost the slippery ball, replacement Iliesa Tanivula broke and Sam Harding had a clear run to the posts.

Highlanders 39 (Filipo Levi 2, Aisea Tuilevu, Josh Blackie, Sam Harding tries; Tony Brown 3 conversions, 2 penalty goals, Nick Evans conversion), Queensland 8 (Sean Hardman try, Elton Flatley penalty goal).


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