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Highlanders outlast Moana Pasifika in historic Tonga contest

By Ned Lester
Jake Te Hiwi of the Highlanders. Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images

It was a powerful moment when the teams took the field in Tonga, under pouring rain with a festive crowd full of voice, they lined up to lay their respective challenges.

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The emotion of the occasion could be seen on the face of the Moana team and also the likes of Folou Fakatava and Saula Ma’u of the Highlanders, both men born and raised in Tonga.

The weather inevitably made it difficult to play running rugby but that didn’t stop either team from playing with some ambition. In the end, the Highlanders player to the conditions a little better and triumphed for it.

Play stopped shortly into the contest as Jonathan Taumateine was helped from the field after a heavy collision with Timoci Tavatavanawai.

The opening scrum of the game was won in dominant fashion by the home team, who went on to also dominate the collision area with the ball in hand.

Tongan-born prop Abraham Pole followed up on that effort with a powerful leg drive to get over the line, with Moana benefitting from a powerful carry from Lotu Inisi among others.

The ensuing kickoff was dropped by Ere Enari, leading to a Highlanders scrum deep in Moana’s 22. The visitors went to their big boys for some strong carries before unleashing a wide attack which was finished by Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.

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Handling was tough in the sodden conditions and both sides were eager to play in the right end of the field.

Another strong scrum from Moana gave William Havili another shot at the posts, which the fullback converted and to make the score 10-5 in his team’s favour.

An indiscretion when contesting the lineout cost Moana field position soon after play resumed, and it didn’t take long for the Highlanders to find an overlap down the blindside, with Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens drawing and passing to set Connor Garden-Bachop over the line. A superb conversion from the sideline by Cam Millar handed the Highlanders the lead.

The Inisi brothers were next to spark some magic, with Fine taking the offload from Havili as the fullback was been driven backwards, with the winger making up that lost ground in an instant before finding No. 8 Lotu who put a kick ahead for his team to chase and regather.

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It was Havili moments later who found a gap big enough for him to squeeze through and just reach the line. Converting his own try saw Havili make the lead five for his team a few minutes shy of the half-hour mark.

Highlanders lock Mitch Dunshea was causing havoc for the Moana Pasifika lineout, helping make up for the scrum troubles.

Another knock-on from Moana handed the Highlanders a scrum in a promising attacking position. The visitors opted for a cross-field kick on the play and Garden-Bachop again connected with Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, this time setting the fullback up to finish his second try of the game by winning the race to another chip and chase.

The score would remain 17-19 at halftime thanks to a second breakdown steal by Timoci Tavatavanawai putting an end to another energetic Moana attack.

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An offside call five minutes into the second half handed the Highlanders a chance to extend their lead to five.

The Moana scrum continued to prove too strong even after some replacements took the field for the Highlanders.

Cam Millar’s tactical kicking game also continued to impress, with perfectly weighted short kicks landing in range of his chasers and sparking dangerous attacks.

The Highlanders set up camp in Moana’s half for much of the third quarter of the contest, with multiple driving maul attempts being defused – legally and illegally – by Moana before the visitors finally opted to realize their gain by taking a penalty shot. That saw the hour mark roll around with a scoreline of 17-25 to the Highlanders.

With the game in the balance, three key handling errors from Moana Pasifika relieved any pressure the team were able to apply, the last of which led to a Highlanders try which was disallowed for a knock-on by the visitors.

Moana Pasifika were running out of time and needed two scores to make up their 11-point deficit, but the Highlanders’ defence and game management proved composed and efficient, seeing them close out the game for a 28-17 win.

 

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