A new era of Highlanders rugby kicked off in forgettable fashion at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday night as the hosts were blitzed 42-20 by an impressive Sharks side in their season-opening Super Rugby clash.
Void of a multitude of key names who have left for clubs in New Zealand and overseas, the new-look hosts were romped by the South African visitors, who flexed their comparative experience through the likes of World Cup-winning Springboks Makazole Mapimpi and captain Lukanyo Am.
Mapimpi bagged a brace of tries on the left wing, a feat of which was emulated by rapid fullback Aphelele Fassi, whose pace on the dry, roof-protected track in Dunedin was at times too much to deal with.
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Building on his eye-catching World Cup form, Mapimpi’s double came in a rapid fire seven-minute period at the end of the first half, where the Sharks ran in three tries to head into the half-time break with a compelling 27-3 lead.
While the Highlanders matched and even outplayed the Sharks for the remaining 73 minutes of the contest, it was that short period of inefficiency and early season rustiness that cost Aaron Mauger’s side dearly come full-time.
“We didn’t necessarily do anything wrong defensively, it was more around just a couple of errors and they were pretty sharp,” head coach Mauger said post-match.
“They’ve got good backs and took their opportunities, and on the other side we didn’t really take our opportunities.
“There were guys with the line wide open and didn’t quite take them, whereas they took all their opportunities.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 8, 2020
While a couple of try-scoring chances that could have swung the momentum of the game went begging, the fact that those opportunities arose was a positive aspect of an otherwise disappointing result for Mauger.
“First game, a little bit of rust there, but they certainly created opportunities, so we’ll keep trusting our plans, just the execution on those plans needs to be better,” he said.
Part of the Highlanders’ plan leading into last night’s match was the deployment of a dual-playmaking axis between five-eighth partners Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane.
Plenty had been made earlier in the week of Mauger’s decision to pick new recruit Hunt ahead of Ioane at first-five, with the one-test All Black instead shifted to the midfield.
The positional switch came as a surprise to many given Ioane’s exploits in the Highlanders’ No. 10 jersey in 2019, which earned him an international debut last season.
However, Mauger cited on Wednesday that Ioane’s defensive solidity was the key reason behind his selection at No. 12.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 4, 2020
Despite the defeat, which saw the Highlanders struggle to punch through the middle of the park with two playmakers on the field, Mauger was full of praise of the Hunt-Ioane partnership.
“I think two of those guys went really well,” he said. “I thought Josh Ioane was outstanding at No. 12.
“I thought he was a real threat with ball in hand and his physicality on defence was exactly what we expected, so I thought he met all the challenges but also sparked the attack when he had ball in hand.”
Hunt’s influence was particularly evident on attack, with the former Crusaders pivot frequently lofting flat, cross-field chip kicks in behind the Sharks’ defensive line for rookie wings Jona Nareki and Tima Fainga’anuku to latch onto.
Ioane added to the Highlanders’ ambitious game plan by attempting many long cut-out passes, plenty of which were nearly picked off through the Sharks’ tenacious rush defence.
Playing with such width stemmed from Mauger’s wariness of carrying into contact against an opposition side filled with large defenders, and he was pleased by his squad’s attacking intent, which eventually paid dividends when two of the Highlanders’ three second half tries were set up by nudges from Hunt and Ioane.
The man who consigned the @Highlanders to one of the most painful losses in recent franchise history is now looking to cement himself as the club’s premier playmaker. #SuperRugby #Highlandershttps://t.co/e5nq4Eh5ta
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 4, 2020
“I thought we attacked pretty well, to be fair,” he said. “In terms of the plans of moving them around.
“Our attacking kicking game was good. When we executed them we had them under pressure.
“It’s just getting the balance right. Teams like that want to win the collisions, that’s why they bring the line speed.
“It’s important that, especially the way we want to play, that we don’t get sucked into trying to carry against bigger men like that through the middle.”
The Highlanders will look to overturn their shaky start to the new season next week, when they travel to Canberra to take on the high-flying Brumbies, who are yet to taste defeat this year after overcoming the Melbourne Rebels 39-26 in the Australian capital last night.
The Sharks, meanwhile, will now travel to Wellington to face the winless Hurricanes in a bid to maintain their unbeaten start to 2020 following their 23-15 win against the Stormers in Durban last week.
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