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Highlanders v Force: Landers have foot in finals, All Blacks won’t be too impressed

By Finn Morton
Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders passes the ball during the round 10 Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Western Force at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on April 27, 2024, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Highlanders have taken a big step towards finals football in Super Rugby Pacific after beating the Western Force 7-6 in a nail-biting contest at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday

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On ANZAC Day Weekend, the Highlanders fell behind early after a Western Force penalty scored by Ben Donaldson late in the first half. It was only 3-nil at the interval, but it was tense.

Folau Fakatava ended up scoring the only try of the night in the 46th minute, with the conversion from replacement Cam Miller proving the difference in the end.

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Here are some takeaways from the Highlanders’ hard-fought win at home.

Match Summary

0
Penalty Goals
2
1
Tries
0
1
Conversions
0
0
Drop Goals
0
104
Carries
96
3
Line Breaks
4
20
Turnovers Lost
20
11
Turnovers Won
3

The Highlanders have one foot in the finals

This was always going to be a massive match for both teams. Win, lose or draw, the ramifications that any result would have on their respective finals hopes were going to be huge.

Before the match, Sky Sport NZ said the winner would have a 45 per cent chance of making the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs, while the team who is beaten would be closer to 17 per cent.

It was a grind, and it wasn’t a pretty rugby match really, but the Highlanders have leapfrogged a few teams to move into the top eight. As for the Western Force, they’re last on the table.

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There’s still a long way to go between now and the playoffs, but the Highlanders can take plenty of positives and confidence out of the fact that their destiny is now in their hands.

If the Highlanders are good enough to win at least a couple more matches this season, they’ll likely play finals footy – depending on bonus points, of course.

All Blacks would only pick one Highlanders player on current form

If the All Blacks were going to pick a form squad tomorrow, the Highlanders would be lucky to have even a single player picked for the national team.

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Of course, Ethan de Groot is widely considered to be a world-class prop. The Australian-born enforcer is a different beast in the black jersey, but the important word from the previous sentence is ‘form’.

Ethan de Groot is not a form prop in New Zealand. The Hurricanes’ Xavier Numia is the pick of the bunch at the moment and there are other loosehead props playing better for New Zealand sides in Super Rugby Pacific.

The only Highlanders player who would probably get picked in the squad – but wouldn’t be a certainty by any means – is Folau Fakatava. The All Black has been impressive in a struggling Highlanders team this season; a shining light during dark times.

But even that is a point of discussion. Cortez Ratima is light years ahead of anyone on current form, while TJ Perenara has also skyrocketed into contention following the unfortunate injury to the talented Cam Roigard.

The only saving grace for Fakatava that may theoretically ensure he’s picked in a form squad is that the Blues’ Finlay Christie is injured. So it only makes sense that coach Scott Robertson would go with Folau Fakatava in that case.

Highlanders looked much better with experienced No.10 leading the way

Like countless sports fans around the world, this writer made sure to tune into the opening round of the NFL Draft on Friday morning. Caleb Williams was picked first overall by the Chicago Bears at the event in Detroit, with a handful of other quarterbacks taken early.

It’s an exciting time for all of these franchises who now believe that they’ve picked up their quarterbacks of the future – but not all of these men will play right away, and that’s the way it should be sometimes in sport.

The Atlanta Falcons drafted former Washington QB Michael Penix Jr with the eighth overall pick despite signing veteran Kirk Cousins to a lucrative multi-year deal during the off-season. It was a moment that raised eyebrows at the Draft but it makes a bit of sense.

Whether it’s the NFL or of course rugby union, taking the pressure off younger players coming through is crucial. Not many athletes have that ability to dominate from the get-go at the professional level.

More often than not, younger ‘prodigies’ benefit from playing second fiddle to a more experienced veteran with lessons to share. In Super Rugby Pacific, that’s what the first 20-odd minutes of this match proved.

For the first time since round six, Wales international Rhys Patchell started in the No.10 jersey with Otago’s first five Cameron Millar named to come off the pine.

In the last few weeks, young playmakers Ajay Faleafaga and Miller have struggled. But with Patchell back in the mix, the Highlanders looked like a completely different team. Former All Black Justin Marshall was raving about the Welshman on commentary about five minutes in.

Patchell had attempted a cross-field kick and a grubber kick inside the first five minutes. There was something exciting about the Highlanders’ attack with Patchell taking the line on with skill, grace and poise.

Unfortunately, Patchell left the field in the 24th minute while holding his left pec muscle. The Highlanders lost some direction. But what this goes to show is that the next big thing might not be the solution to the Highlanders’ inconsistencies right now.

Ben Donaldson needs to feature in Australia’s Test series against Wales

Last year, it was a bit of a surprise to see Ben Donaldson picked ahead of Quade Cooper in the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup squad. Donaldson was still very new to the international game at that stage and hadn’t played a single minute during The Rugby Championship.

After coming off the bench against France in Paris just before the sports showpiece event, Donaldson was named to start at fullback in Australia’s tournament opener against Georgia at Stade de France. He was named Player of the Match after scoring a headline-grabbing double.

Donaldson started all four pool matches (two at fullback, two at flyhalf) during that tournament, but some still question whether new coach Joe Schmidt should pick the Western Force pivot in the squad to play Wales late this year.

But the Wallaby took a big step towards more international honours on Saturday. Now before you read further, it definitely wasn’t the greatest game of rugby, but Donaldson deserves a mention..

Most notably, Donaldson kicked for the corner twice during the first half, but both were from a fair way out. Most other first fives would be tempted to play conservatively and set up for a lineout 22 metres out from the try line.

But not Donaldson.

One attempt was battered back into the field by the Highlanders, but the other made it into touch. That’s the kind of aggression and skill that should put a smile on the face of coach Joe Schmidt. More generally, ‘Dono’ was composed and smart around the field.

Donaldson was mostly quite accurate at goal, ran for more than 20 metres, and put the Force in some point-scoring positions – the team just weren’t good enough to make the most of them.

Carter Gordon and Noah Lolesio are also worthy contenders to make Australia’s squad, and Tom Lynagh is a bolter, but Donaldson showed enough on Saturday to warrant a potential inclusion in the squad. Behind a good forward pack, the Aussie would be solid.

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