However, head coach Aaron Mauger fully expected the spirited effort from the lowly Queenslanders, who conceded a Dillon Hunt try in the final few minutes to lose 36-31.
Earlier in the week, Mauger said that he anticipated the Brad Thorn-coached side to provide a gritty, determined challenge under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium, and that is exactly what the Highlanders had to contend with as they came from behind twice to steal a late win.
“It was everything we expected from the Reds, everything we previewed about them being a team that had a lot of guts and played for the full 80 minutes,” Mauger told RugbyPass post-match.
“We knew they’d strike back. [I] thought we did a lot of things really well, probably gave them some opportunities to stay in the game as well, so that was a little bit disappointing. To their credit, they took their opportunities, and made it a contest for 80 minutes.”
Mauger had highlighted the Reds’ forwards, of which featured five Wallabies, as one of the key threats posed by the Queenslanders, and said his side had planned to make the opposition pack move around the park in an attempt to work them out of the game.
While it was a plan that worked well enough to yield five well-taken tries, defensive frailties, a wobbly set piece and individual errors mounted to let the visitors come uncomfortably close to victory.
“I thought we were a bit passive on defence tonight,” Mauger said.
“We got caught on our heels a lot. When we defend well, we’re a team that are on our toes and get off the line and make good shots, so I didn’t see that enough tonight.
“They scored some awesome tries, they ran 60 or 70 metres from a couple of turnovers and made us pay, so we’re going to have to take the lessons from that and be better next time.”
After an impressive opening 20-minute stanza, where he beat two defenders to break the line three times, run for 57 metres and score a try, midfielder Rob Thompson was forced off the field with what appeared to be an ankle complaint sustained at a breakdown.
Thompson’s injury woes did not dismay Mauger, though.
“He seemed okay at halftime,” he said.
“He was obviously a little bit sore, so he couldn’t carry on because he couldn’t put any weight through it, but he was showered up and smiling at halftime, so we’ll wait for the medics to assess him in the morning, and see where he’s going.”
Thompson joins winger Tevita Nabura – whose campaign has ended before it started with a pre-season shoulder injury – and loose forward Liam Squire in the Highlanders’ medical ward.
Squire, who is working through an ongoing hip injury, will have his work cut out for him once he returns to the side following the impressive performance of Shannon Frizell.
The four-test All Black was immense from blindside flanker, scoring a brace of tries after carrying the ball for 56 metres, beating six defenders and making two clean breaks in the process.
He was defensively astute as well, missing none of his 11 tackle attempts and winning two turnovers for his side.
Mauger was cautious in praising the 25-year-old, though, with Squire still firmly in the mix despite being a couple weeks away from selection contention.
“We think Shannon was okay, did a lot of things really well. There’s a few parts of his game that he’ll need to keep working on to give us those important things that we need from him.
“Don’t talk him up too much because all those guys have still got things to work on, they’re all going to compete through the year for those positions, so it’s an exciting place for them.”
Young first-five Josh Ioane was another to impress for the Highlanders, backing up his composed showing against the Chiefs last week with another calm performance in front of a boisterous home crowd of 15,236.
Mauger said the support from the leadership group and the players surrounding the 23-year-old playmaker have been instrumental in helping him become accustomed to the nuances of directing a Super Rugby side around the park.
“We’ve got three quality fly halves, and he’s had the first couple of cracks and done a good job.”
With two wins under their belt to open their account for 2019, the Highlanders now head to Melbourne to face the Rebels for their first overseas match of the year.
Although the hard-fought victories were pleasing for Mauger, he said his side will need to be more ruthless in their pursuits of success, especially against Australian sides of which he believed were improving.
“Like I said earlier, [there’s] a few things to tidy up, [we’d] like to do things a bit more convincingly, especially when we put ourselves in positions to put teams away, so we need to be a bit more ruthless over the next couple of weeks if we’re really to start hitting the next gear,” he said.
“The Reds’ performance tonight is a reflection of that [improvement in Australian rugby]. They have a second-year coach who’s done a great job, and you can see his philosophy and Brad Thorn’s character come through in those Reds performances.
“[Dave] Wessels has done a great job at the Rebels as well, so expect another tough, physical encounter over in Melbourne.
“The key is to recover well and prepare well and travel well, just something we didn’t do too well last year, so that should be our plan and go over there and attack the game with a lot of energy and real clarity about what we need to do on the field.”
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