Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has attributed his side’s defensive desperation and low turnover rate as the key factors behind the franchise’s 35-29 victory over the Blues in Dunedin on Friday.
The result keeps the Highlanders well within the hunt for a place in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final on May 8 as they trail the second-placed Blues by just one point.
It comes after the Highlanders succumbed to a 26-23 golden point defeat at the hands of the Chiefs last week, which led to Brown to lambast his side’s error rate and high penalty count shortly after the loss.
However, Brown spoke of his side’s prowess at the breakdown with pride during his post-match press conference as he claimed the Highlanders’ turnover rate was the equal-lowest he’s ever seen during his career as a coach.
“Obviously a better performance than we had last week and it comes back down to our execution and our intent, especially around the collision area,” he said.
“They’re physical boys, we had to be really good defensively. We had to be good at the breakdown. I thought our breakdown’s probably been the best it’s been all year, and our turnover percentage was 17 percent again.
“We did that against the Crusaders and it was the lowest I’ve ever seen as a coach. We’ve done it again, so if you’re doing that, you’re winning games of rugby.”
Brown attributed his team’s performance at the collision area to the work of his loose forwards, an area of the squad he said was a particular strength for the Highlanders.
Much was made at the beginning of the season as to who would start in the back row for the club given the depth of quality throughout in the position.
Most saw Shannon Frizell, Kazuki Himeno, Liam Squire and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u as genuine starters at blindside flanker and No 8, while new recruit Billy Harmon and ex-captain James Lentjes were the two strongest candidates for openside flanker.
Squire has since been sidelined for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, while Mikaele-Tu’u has found himself out of favour after being one of six players dropped for disciplinary reasons following the loss to the Hurricanes three weeks ago.
However, even if those two hadn’t encountered those setbacks, it would have been hard to find room for them in the starting loose forward trio considering the impressive form Frizell and Himeno have found themselves in over the past few weeks.
The All Blacks could reportedly square off against a surprise opponent in one of two additional tests to the three matches already pencilled in for their end-of-year tour. #AllBlacks https://t.co/2UlzueWFnQ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 17, 2021
The same can be said of Harmon, who has been scintillating in the No 7 this year and has kept Lentjes confined to a bench role for the majority of the season.
“Billy Harmon is just getting better and better in the No 7 jersey,” Brown said after the Blues match. “Shannon Frizell gets better with every game he plays, and then you’ve got Himeno as well and the guys coming off the bench did a great job.
“Our loose forwards have always, I think, been our strength and our point of difference as a rugby team and they’re playing good rugby at the moment, so it’s great to see.”
The loose forwards weren’t the only positional group to have stood out in Brown’s eyes under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday.
He was equally as impressed with playmakers Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane, both of whom caused numerous headaches of the visitors’ defence as the former racked up four try assists and the latter crossed for a try.
“Both Mitch and Josh were quality again around controlling our game and working together as a No 10 and No 15,” Brown said.
“That’s just the way that the game’s going now. You need two guys who can play first-five-eighth and two guys who can play fullback on the field at the same time.”
Both players pulled off miraculous try-saving tackles on powerhouse Blues wing Caleb Clarke at various stages of the second half, exemplifying the desperate defence that Brown said was a hallmark of his team’s success.
“The desperation was there with our defence tonight, and I would probably think the Blues would be disappointed with how they executed there as well,” he said.
“But, if you’re desperate and you want to win, you force mistakes and you force the opposition into errors, I think that’s probably what happened tonight.”
Elsewhere, young midfielder Scott Gregory and veteran lock Bryn Evans both stamped their authority over the Blues with a pair of good showings.
Gregory, the 22-year-old Northlander, endured a difficult start to Super Rugby last year with a string of error-ridden performances against the likes of the Melbourne Rebels and Blues.
However, the youngster has flourished since being called back into the starting side in the Highlanders’ last three matches, leading Brown to label the All Blacks Sevens representative as good as breakout star Connor Garden-Bachop.
Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith has revealed he is "brutally disappointed" for rising Highlanders star Folau Fakatava following his season-ending knee injury a fortnight ago. #HIGvBLU #SuperRugbyAotearoa https://t.co/qmHuFHSgn2
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 17, 2021
“He’s had a tough time in the Highlanders jersey over the last 12 months, but he’s one of our stars this year,” Brown said.
“You talk about Connor, but I think you can put Scott Gregory in the same bracket around influence that he’s had on our team.
“He’s going to be, hopefully, a star for the Highlanders going forward. He’s a bit like Richard Buckman, that sort of player, and I think you saw that tonight. A tough guy who won’t come off.”
Brown also conceded that he didn’t envisage Evans – the 36-year-old second rower who returned to New Zealand last year following nine seasons in Europe – getting as many minutes as he has received this season.
With promising young locks such as Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit at Brown’s disposal, most expected Evans to play the role of fourth-string second rower in the Highlanders squad.
But, injuries to other players and the strong form shown by Evans has enabled the two-test All Black to feature in six of his side’s seven matches, with four of those appearances coming from the starting lineup.
“If I was honest, no,” Brown said when asked if he thought Evans would feature as heavily as he has this year.
“I think he’s loving being back in New Zealand rugby. For me, he’s a rugby man and really smart around the game. He’s loving being in our team environment and he’s loving being on the field again.
“For me, if he’s available again next year, I’d 100 percent sign him.”
The Highlanders will have next week off with a bye before returning to play the Hurricanes in Wellington in the final round of the regular season.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now