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Defensive lapses hurt Highlanders again

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'It's gutting, it's tough going' - Highlanders look to Crusaders clash as they fall to fourth straight defeat

By the time the Highlanders face the Crusaders in Christchurch next Friday, they will be closing in on a two-month winless run in Super Rugby.

Their last victory came against the Reds in a 36-31 win at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 22, and after three losses and a match cancellation, they came within a whisker of snapping their winning drought against the Hurricanes in Dunedin on Friday night.

However, the visitors snuck away with a 31-28 victory in a match where openside flanker Ardie Savea proved his worth as a world-class player.

For all that the 25-year-old threw at the hosts, which included a spectacular brace of tries, Highlanders head coach was impressed with his sides effort, despite the bitter manner of which they lost the match.

“It’s gutting, it’s tough going,” he told RugbyPass shortly after the match.

“I thought we played some really good footy, really proud of the effort, the attitude that went into the performance, thought we showed lots of heart, defended really well for large patches, and scored some good points.

“Just frustrating, a couple of defensive lapses at key times, and a team like the Hurricanes, they make you pay, so got to give credit to them for taking those opportunities.”

Ardie Savea in action against the Highlanders. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Those defensive lapses were particularly evident at at the re-start, with the Hurricanes scoring two of their four tries within a handful of minutes after the Highlanders had scored themselves.

Mauger pointed to other facets of the game which contributed to his side’s defeat, including an intercepted offload which gifted Savea his first try just before half-time, a multitude of missed tackles and some poor defensive reads, but was confident his side’s ability to overturn this slump of form.

“Lots of patches in the game where we played some outstanding footy and we had a lot of momentum, but it was decided in the end by a couple of lapses, so we’ve just got to make sure we get those out of our game,” he said.

“We’ve just got to play for 80 minutes, really.”

Trailing by three points at the backend of the game, the Highlanders were handed four kickable penalties inside the final eight minutes, but opted to go for the sideline every time in hope of pushing over for a try from a rolling maul.

Hurricanes reserve lock Liam Mitchell was eventually sent to the sin bin after the third penalty, but a butchered lineout move following his dismissal secured the result for the away side.

Plenty of fans have since questioned the Highlanders’ decision to not take a kick at goal to earn a draw, while others have been left wondering why the players didn’t opt for a scrum against a depleted Hurricanes forward pack, but Mauger was adamant his side made the right call.

“We wanted to win the game,” he said.

“That was our mindset, to win the game, we backed those decisions made out on the field, the boys felt confident enough.

“You look at those first two lineout drives, the Hurricanes had to defend those illegally to stop us, and we just didn’t quite get our detail right in the last one.”

Now lying in the underwhelming place of 10th with 14 points to their name, the Highlanders now face the difficult assignment of travelling to Christchurch to take on the competition-leading Crusaders.

The Dunedin edition of the South Island derby was cancelled last month in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, but the prolonged build-up to the fixture is something that Mauger – a four-time Super Rugby champion with the Crusaders between 2000 and 2007 – has been relishing.

“An exciting opportunity for us,” he said.

“What better place to go and turn things around. They’re a quality side and the top of the competition for a reason, and it’s a great opportunity for us to go up there and take everything we’ve got and throw [it] at them.”

While the lack of focus defensively which cost the Highlanders a win against the Hurricanes needs to be readjusted, Mauger emphasised the importance for the Highlanders to implement their own style of play against the rampant back-to-back champions, who are set to host the Brumbies on Saturday evening.

“You can’t sit back and let them play their game because they’re very good at it, so we’ve got to go and impose our game on them, and really back it to get a result.”

The Short Ball – Nobody plays the referee quite like the Crusaders do:

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'It's gutting, it's tough going' - Highlanders look to Crusaders clash as they fall to fourth straight defeat