The Highlanders have finished their pre-season with a big 35-12 win over the Hurricanes at Molyneux Park in Alexandra.
The victory should significantly boost the confidence of the Highlanders ahead of their season-opener against the Crusaders next week, while the Hurricanes will have plenty to work on in the week leading up to their first match against the Blues.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic to start off with, though, as the visitors dominated possession and territory in the early stages and were rewarded for their good attacking structures with a try to Jordie Barrett.
The hosts can attribute weak defence on barnstorming loose forward Devan Flanders as the reason behind Barrett’s fourth-minute try, but it took a long time before anyone else registered on the scoreboard.
In fact it took a yellow card to Barrett before the Highlanders were able to level the scores, with the fullback pinged for a professional foul to deny the opposition what would have been a scintillating try originating from deep within their own half.
The ensuing scrum gave the Highlanders what they wanted, though, with a pick off the back from No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u splintering the defensive line, which couldn’t stop the powerful follow-up effort from Shannon Frizell from close range.
While that brought joy to the impressive crowd that came out in force in Central Otago, there will have been plenty of grimaces in the Highlanders’ coaching box when midfielder Fetuli Paea limped from the field with a painful-looking ankle sprain.
How long the two-test Tongan international, a new recruit from the Crusaders who looked very athletic in the No. 13 jersey, will be sidelined for is yet-to-be-determined, but the Hurricanes didn’t hesitate to take advantage of his departure.
Some good continuity from the away side put Ngani Laumape over the chalk for a well-taken try, capping off an impressive 40 minutes where he began to show a full bag of tricks that included some nice distribution and a new-look kicking game.
He was one of many to have stood out throughout the first half – returning Hurricanes wing Julian Savea looked trim and full of energy, while emerging flanker Du’Plessis Krifi was a menace at the breakdown.
Halfback Jonathan Taumateine stated his case well to fill the void at No. 9 left by TJ Perenara, who is in Japan on sabbatical, and the injured Jamie Booth with some lively showings.
For the Highlanders, Paea and Sio Tomkinson combined well in the midfield before the former was forced from the field on the stroke of halftime, with both players providing plenty of punch on both sides of the ball.
Waratahs recruit Perese could now miss half the Super Rugby AU season following an outrageous tip tackle during #REDvWAR ?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 19, 2021
Highlanders fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder also made a welcome return to Super Rugby action, playing solidly for his new side against his old team.
The second half proved to be a different story entirely, though.
The additions of livewire backs such as Folau Fakatava, Josh Ioane and Freedom Vahaakolo sprung the Highlanders into life in a half where they scored 28 unanswered points.
Those three all linked together to pierce the Hurricanes’ defence with some swift intertwining distribution that sucked the opposition in-field, allowing Ngatungane Punivai to score in the corner without much hassle.
Just a few minutes later, livewire outside back Connor Garden-Bachop got in on the action, scoring on the back of a linebreak through the middle of the field by Scott Gregory, which was followed by some good intuition shown by Fakatava and Ioane.
Two further tries were scored by returning flanker James Lentjes, who was making his first appearance in almost a year after suffering a horror ankle and leg injury against the Melbourne Rebels.
His brace, both of which came from solid driving mauls set by the Highlanders’ forward pack, gave the match a feel-good factor about it, and puts the franchise in good stead ahead of their season-opener next Friday.
Highlanders 35 (Tries to James Lentjes (2), Shannon Frizell, Ngatungane Punivai, Connor Garden-Bachop; 4 conversions to Josh Ioane, conversion to Mitch Hunt)
Hurricanes 12 (Tries to Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape; conversion to Barrett; yellow card to Barrett)
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