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Highlanders hand Hurricanes hefty loss in pre-season action

By Ned Lester
Tanielu Tele'a with the ball in hand for the Highlanders. Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images

Week two of the Super Rugby Pacific pre-season games saw the Hurricanes visit the Highlanders in Dunedin, with a game of three 30-minute blocks and over 30 players named to feature for each club.

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The Highlanders embraced youth in an offseason where they lost half of their players, starting to filter in the first products from their new high-performance program while recruiting some promising youngsters from rival clubs.

The outing would be the Hurricanes’ first without Ardie Savea and Dane Coles as the All Black pair enjoy seasons in Japan, Savea is to return to the club in 2025 while Coles is set for retirement from the game.

A 52-19 victory for the hosts wasn’t what the Hurricanes would have expected, but the Highlanders showed the benefit of having one pre-season hit out already under their belt.

The Hurricanes were ambitious with their attack early, putting the ball through the hands with sweeping runs, but the Highlanders’ defence was patient and absorbed the attacking threats well.

There was a lack of execution with Brett Cameron missing touch and the Highlanders mishandling a lineout in the opening minutes, before the first big play of the game saw the Highlanders break the line from a lineout move. Recent Highlanders recruit Timoci Tavatavanawai went storming upfield and was chopped down past the 10-metre line.

The young Highlanders had a rhythm on attack, showing creativity with Folau Fakatava playing with attacking freedom. The hosts maintained a good pace at the breakdown en route to their first try, which was claimed by a rampaging Daniel Lienert-Brown. Sam Gilbert was handed the kicking duties and converted.

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Duplessis Kirifi led the Hurricanes’ defence and very quickly established himself as a threat at every breakdown, which was needed given the trouble the Wellington team continued to have securing their own lineout.

Fakatava got on the board himself in the 20th minute, running a superb support line off fullback Connor Garden-Bachop who threaded the needle to find the halfback in space after shedding a couple of tackles.

The Highlanders were managing the game well, consistently finding their strong ball carriers in Renton and Tavatavanawai while utilising their secondary playmaker Sam Gilbert well in the midfield.

Brayden Iose got the Hurricanes on the front foot with a strong carry after play resumed, with the ball then finding James O’Reilly who crossed in the corner.

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The opening 30-minute block came to an end with the Highlanders hitting a penalty.

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Iose quickly made his mark in the second period as well, crashing over from close range in a strong albeit suspicious scoring effort.

A behind-the-back offload in contact from Rhys Patchell handed Billy Harmon an angle at the line, still with two players in front of him, Harmon powered through and got the ball down.

Tanielu Tele?a got his Highlanders career off to a strong start, running a strong support line and beating the last defender with ease. Tele’a would later produce a superb impersonation of a brick wall by absorbing the power of a charging Harry Godfrey right on the try line.

The Highlanders continued to find strong ball carriers in their reserve unit, with hulking prop Saula Ma’u contributing post-contact metres with most of his touches.

The structured nature of the game fell away as more substations entered the game and as the average age of the players dropped.

Garden-Bachop continued to probe and beat players for the Highlanders, while the Hurricanes midfield of Peter Umaga-Jensen and Billy Proctor was bruising and hard to escape on the defensive side of the ball.

Fabian Holland provided a giant frame for the Highlanders to hit at lineout time and impressed around the field with his strength and mobility.

On the wing, there was a small earthquake when Kini Naholo ran at Tavatavanawai, with the Highlanders recruit winning the play by opportunistically stealing the ball at the breakdown – not his only steal of the afternoon in that area.

Young first five-eighth Away Faleafaga looked composed for the Highlanders while the Hurricanes’ line out continued to be a shambles.

The Highlanders’ young front row was strong and their ball retention was efficient without the Hurricanes’ more prolific fetchers on the field. That helped pave the way for Jonah Lowe to score off a pick and go.

Jordi Viljoen, son of former Springbok, Roelof “Joggie” Viljoen, was energetic as halfback replacement for the Hurricanes, and fellow 2023 New Zealand U20 product Peter Lakai was busy in all aspects of the game once on the field.

Matt Whaanga was the next to score on a strong charge from five metres out, extending the Highlanders lead to 45-12 after Faleafaga converted.

The Hurricanes struck back minutes later as Kini Naholo was put in space by swift passing, he then handed the ball to Kyle Preston to run it in untouched.

The Hurricanes’ poor discipline kept handing the Highlanders favourable field position and Matt Whaanga again proved impossible to contain on another charge, this time from 10 metres out and running straight into covering forwards to bounce towards the try line.

Winning 52-19, the Highlanders showed they’ll be a fun team to watch in the coming season and certainly have some firepower coming through the ranks.

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