Highlanders rediscover 'mojo' despite falling to another loss
Saturday afternoon’s defeat at the hands of the Blues marked the Highlanders’ fifth successive loss to kick off the season but coach Tony Brown and co-captain Mitch Hunt were optimistic that the side had turned a corner and could push on from the match.
In the Highlanders’ opening four games of the season, New Zealand’s southernmost franchise managed a paltry six tries. Four of those tries had been scored by forwards, Dan Lienert-Brown, Josh Dickson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit and Shannon Frizell, with wing-cum-fullback Josh Gilbert the only member of the backline to get on the scoresheet this year.
While Gilbert remains the only try-scorer in the backs after the 32-25 defeat at the hands of the Blues, he at least added two more to his tally on Saturday, while Lienert-Brown also touched down once more.
From Brown’s point of view, that’s a step in the right direction.
“I think we found a little of our mojo there that we’ve been lacking,” the Highlanders head coach said following the game. “The boys were excited and physical and wanted the ball in their hands. We created some good opportunities there.”
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Fly-half Hunt was also positive after the loss – a change from the Highlander’ post-match interviews of weeks gone by.
“[It was a ] great game,” he said. “We’ve changed a couple of things in our game over the last couple of weeks. Obviously, I don’t know if the week off was a wee blessing in disguise to sort a few things out, rethink a few things. But I thought we looked a lot better tonight in general.
“I thought our kicking game was great, we created some real pressure. They just got a couple of lucky breaks in terms of tries, I think, and that ultimately sort of hurt us.”
“We’ve just simplified our game in terms of our carries with what we’re doing with our forwards,” he further explained. “We’re trying to make them work less and just really simplify their roles in terms of hard carrying, tough ruck work and creating speed that way.
“Really simplified for our backs as well around our running lines and what we’re asking them to do. I think when we got that right tonight, we saw some great tries, some great momentum, some great interplay – potentially what we haven’t seen from us in the previous few weeks so as I said before, I think maybe that week off was a wee blessing in disguise to sort of rethink and rejig a bit of our game.”
Still, another week without a win means the Highlanders are well and truly playing catch-up with sides like the Blues, Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies and Reds – who are all at least 11-points clear on the competition ladder.
“It’s a pleasing effort but not what we need at this stage in the comp so we’ve gotta keep working hard,” Brown lamented. “The games don’t get any easier. Crusaders in Christchurch is one of the toughest places to win so we’ve gotta get back into it on Monday and be ready to play on Friday.”
The Highlanders will, however, be confident they can claw back some points against the Australian sides later in the competition and with an eight-team finals series, there shouldn’t yet be any fears about missing the playoffs.
While each past loss has appeared to further dent the Highlanders’ confidence, it appears that Saturday’s defeat may not quite have the same impact – although it will still be a frustrating pill to swallow.
“I can’t fault the effort and the desire and the heart of my team,” Brown said. “Everyone’s putting so much effort into not only our performance on the field but our performance week as well around preparing for the game.
“Everyone’s putting in so much effort and then it’s just heartbreaking that we’re not getting the results that we need.”
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