Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger has responded to claims that Aaron Smith’s controversial penalty in Sunday’s 32-21 defeat to the Blues as “the right call”.

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It comes after widespread criticism on social media and in the commentary booth at Smith’s efforts to earn his side a penalty as he ran into Blues prop Karl Tu’inukuafe while on the ground in an offside position.

Referee Mike Fraser’s decision – upon consultation with the TMO – to award the Highlanders a penalty saved the home side seven points after Dalton Papalii had scored under the posts from an interception in the same passage of play.

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That try was overturned, however, with Highlanders playmaker Josh Ioane going on to slot the ensuing penalty kick at goal to hand his side a 13-12 lead shortly before half-time.

Going by the letter of the law, it seems Fraser’s decision was the right call, as although Tu’inukuafe had done all he could to move out of the way, he was still caught in an offside position.

Many expressed their discontent at the call, though, with pundits on Twitter calling for common sense to come into play as they labelled the decision “disgraceful”, “pure grubbery” and “the kind of BS we fight so hard to keep out of rugby”.

Sky Sport commentator and former All Blacks prop Wyatt Crockett was among those outraged at the decision, and was quoted as saying: “Aaron’s basically pulling a Hollywood to milk his team a penalty, and that’s not in the spirit of our game”.

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Speaking to media post-match, Mauger fended off Crockett’s assertion that Smith’s theatrics aren’t “in the spirit of our game”.

“He’s influenced the attack,” the former All Blacks five-eighth said of Tu’inukuafe being caught in Smith’s running line.

“We had them under the pressure at that time, so I thought it was the right call.”

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By contrast, Blues boss Leon MacDonald refrained from speaking out against the officials’ call, despite it going against his side’s fortunes.

“Yeah, well, I would have liked the try to be awarded, absolutely,” he said.

“Talking about those sort of moments in the game, refs always call them as they see them.

“We’ve moved on pretty quickly and we were able to regain the lead and hold it, so it didn’t become too big a deal in the end.”

MacDonald added that he thought Fraser and his assistant “did a great job out there”, noting how tough of a job it can be as a whistleblower. 

Outmuscled by the Blues’ bruising forward pack, Mauger revealed the Highlanders’ game plan involved trying to use the ball quickly in an attempt to run their opponents’ big men off their feet.

Asked whether the offside call against Tu’inukuafe was a result of the home side’s high-tempo style of play, Mauger said: “We did have them under pressure and that’s where we were really looking to kick on, but they managed to slow us up when they needed to.

“We weren’t able to get into that flow when we wanted to.

“We were talking about overspeed and it just didn’t quite happen for us, but it was the breakdown we talked about before [the match], us being a little bit faster there.

“Their tactics at the breakdown [were] to try and slow us up, and I think you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.

“They did a good job tonight, they deserve their win.”

The result puts the Highlanders out of Super Rugby Aotearoa title contention heading into their final two matches of the campaign against the Crusaders and Hurricanes.

The Blues, meanwhile, will be reliant on the Highlanders upsetting the league-leading Crusaders in Christchurch this Sunday to set-up a do-or-die final round clash between the traditional rivals at Eden Park on August 16.

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