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Highlanders suffer another injury blow in Blues beating

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Marty Melville/Photosport)

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Things aren’t getting any easier for the Highlanders, who suffered their fourth defeat of the season on Friday night against the Blues at North Harbour Stadium.

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Despite leading 13-3 at halftime, the Highlanders struggled to compete with the might of the Blues’ forwards following the break while dangermen such as Mark Telea and Zarn Sullivan also found their feet during the second spell.

Back-to-back tries to rookie flanker Taine Plumtree in the 42nd and 49th minutes quickly pushed the Blues into the lead, with the home side eventually powering their way to a 32-20 victory. The turning point in the match, however, actually came before halftime – when game-breaking second five-eighth Thomas Umaga-Jensen left the field in just the 33rd minute of the fixture.

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Up until that point, Umaga-Jensen had been the Highlanders’ primary attacking weapon, showing off his immense strength to power through defenders and at one point managing to slip a nice offload out of the tackle to get his side on the attack.

Without Umaga-Jensen on the field, the Highlanders lacked any real penetration – even with the injection of Ngatungane Punivai, making his first appearance of the season.

 

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Following the match, Highlanders coach Tony Brown indicated that while Umaga-Jensen hadn’t done anything serious, he likely won’t be back on deck next weekend when the southerners take on Moana Pasifika.

“He’s just got a bit of a groin strain, it shouldn’t be too bad,” Brown said. “Obviously he’s having a great season. He’s hard to stop from set-piece and he’s probably been our best player so far so it’s gonna be a big loss for us. Hopefully, it’s only two or three weeks.”

Leading into the halftime break, Blues lock Luke Romano was sin-binned for collapsing a defensive maul but without Umaga-Jensen on the park, the Highlanders struggled to take advantage of their extra man.

“I thought if we had created a try-scoring opportunity just heading into halftime, I think we would have had a better half of rugby,” said the coach. “We didn’t quite nail that and that could have been the difference.

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“Obviously we didn’t score enough points [with the one-man advantage] and that [missed] try just leading into halftime was part of that. We’ve just gotta be better there.

“So not executing there and then going into halftime only 10 points up where we could’ve been more was probably a let-off for the Blues.”

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Umaga-Jensen wasn’t the only early substitution for the Highlanders, with Marty Banks coming onto the field for Liam Coombes-Fabling at halftime. As was the case when the Highlanders took on the Crusaders earlier in their campaign, these early injuries affected Brown’s late-game tactics.

“Obviously, [we were] down a few troops there leading into halftime which doesn’t help as well, and doesn’t allow you to make key subs around that 50, 60-minute mark.”

Umaga-Jensen has had a torrid time with injuries in years gone by, making just 13 appearances for the Highlanders since his debut in 2018. While the latest likely won’t keep him off the field for too long, it’s still a setback for the 24-year-old, who will have surely captured the interests of the national selectors with his impressive performances this year.

Even just two or three weeks off the field will also hugely hinder the Highlanders, who are now winless after four rounds of action.

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