As we predicted, the Force managed to get up by a couple of points, and yet again the Highlanders managed to come off second best in a tight match. The Force minimized their errors and all phases were executed with precision.
Sias Ebersohn had a dream day from the boot, as both his kicking from hand and off the tee was nothing short of metronomic. The Highlanders, for much of the match, played into the Force’s hands with their attack. They would exhaust one side of the field completely, going phase after phase after phase in the same direction, allowing the Force to anticipate where they would strike next and allow them to also pick and choose the right ball carriers to attack at the breakdown.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Highlanders did have some joy from this sort of bludgeoning but straightforward attack, forcing the Australian side into giving away penalties for Sopoaga to convert, but with little variation the Force were less troubled than they should have been.
Another criticism of the Highlanders would be that their attack is very flat. This in effect was the reason why Ebersohn was able to pick them off for his intercept try.
Ben Smith at fullback for the Highlanders was extremely quiet. He elected to kick return most balls that came his way or instantly pass to another of his back three colleagues to take it to the line. For Ben McCalman’s score, the force were able to get over after three simple phases after a scrum on the Highlanders 22. This is very unlike the Highlanders. They are normally extremely robust around the fringes, but on Saturday at times they were out-muscled.
One wonders: Did the Highlanders fall into the same trap as the Rebels, and underestimate the Force? The Force were able to go through simple phases and one-out-from-the-ruck plays, and consistantly get well past the advantage line.
The Force’s final try was scored yet again, by the Highlanders being too flat and lateral in attack and when they finally decided to kick the ball, Rasolea was able to gather a fortuitous bounce from a block down and seal the bonus point. This served as a kick up the backside for the Highlanders, and in fairness to them, they responded, becoming far more direct and less lateral. They began to offload in the tackle making it difficult for the defence to line them up.
Highlander’s management decided to take off Coltman the hooker who had an awful day with his darts as he couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo throughout the afternoon. His replacement, ex Rebels player, Ged Robinson was a huge improvement and contributed to the Highlanders comeback. For the last twenty minutes, the Highlanders played like an angry side with a chip on their shoulder.
I thought that they would do this in the first twenty minutes but it took them an hour to mentally “get there”. Their penultimate try, scored by Fekitoa got them within striking distance. With just six minutes remaining, the Force had Coleman and McCalman binned. This was a result of the desperate pressure the Highlanders had them under.
The Highlanders unfortunately, for all their intensity, showed little patience and even less guile in breaking the Force down until the last seconds of the game. Against thirteen men, it is not completely unreasonable to expect a decent outfit to score twice in under six minutes, but the Highlanders just couldn’t do it. Young Hayden Parker finally broke through for a score on the 79th minute but must not have had his Weetabix on Saturday morning, lacking the distance and forcing the kick onto the far post. They had to settle for a bonus point.
To summarize, so many of the individual battles were won by the Force for the first sixty minutes. Ebersohn outshone Sopoaga. Matt Hodgson outplayed Shane Christie and Alby Mathewson haunted Aaron Smith throughout.
The Scrums were evenly contested, but the lineouts would have to go to the Force, as Coltman was more than wayward with his throwing. For the final twenty minutes, the Highlanders showed us what they can do when their forwards are running hard and straight. If they had played like that for the previous hour the scoreboard and result would have been the polar opposite.
Next week the Highlanders will have a derby match at home to the Hurricanes. The jury is out on the Hurricanes. They looked like world-beaters against a demoralized Cheetahs side, but they are absolutely porous in defense. Once the damn bursts on the Hurricanes defensive line, despite that line being led by Conrad Smith, they can concede catastrophic amounts of points.
Any team with a bit of structure and defensive steel is live versus the Wellington side. But I don’t think that the Highlanders are that sort of side and I think the Hurricanes can take it probably by ten or more.
The Force are facing what will probably amount to their most difficult fixture on the card for 2014, a home fixture against the Waikato Chiefs. The Chiefs are an absolutely awesome, mesmerising side, who are virtually unbeatable within the rules of the game home or away. They host a plethora of stars throughout their squad, and there is an air of menace every time a Chiefs player touches the ball. They are in my opinion, the best non-international side on the planet currently.
The harsh two-week ban that Ben McCalman received will only further hinder the Force’s chances of getting anything from the game. And even as a Force supporter, I would be utterly amazed if the WA were not crushed here, and a victory at the NIB stadium over this Chiefs team would probably be the finest hour the club has ever had.
Over and out,