Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has effectively ruled out his side qualifying for this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final following Saturday’s golden point defeat to the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The 26-23 loss, which came courtesy of an 86th minute penalty goal from Damian McKenzie, leaves the Dunedin-based franchise in fourth place on the competition standings with just two matches remaining in the regular season.
The Chiefs, who leapfrogged to the Highlanders into the third spot as a result of their victory, and the second-placed Blues also have a game in hand over the southerners to help extend their respective two and four-point buffers on the table.
Subsequently, the Highlanders need to win their final two matches of the campaign against the Blues and Hurricanes and require a slew of other results to go their way if they are to make the grand final on May 8.
However, Brown poured cold water over the prospect of making that match while speaking to reporters in the wake of the defeat as he lambasted his side for giving away too many “soft” penalties, lacking intensity and poor goal-kicking.
“We’ve got to go again. We’ve only got a six day turnaround,” the former Highlanders and All Blacks first-five said when asked how he was going to lift his squad up for this Friday’s home clash with the Blues.
“It should hurt. For me, this performance should hurt us because we had the opportunity to do something great around trying to make the play-offs.
“We’re out of that, so it should hurt and they should be disappointed, but they should be excited to take on the Blues team which looks like they’re probably going to get second.”
Brown was notably unhappy with the way in which the Highlanders started the match as the Chiefs dominated the opening half as a result of his side’s high error count.
“We just couldn’t get anything going. We were either making silly mistakes or just giving them real soft penalties which kills everything you’re trying to do around trying to create pressure.”
The 46-year-old added: “Coming off a pretty good performance against the Crusaders, we couldn’t compare ourselves to reach that same intensity, which meant that our game suffered.
“Ultimately, we didn’t quite get that result, but I thought we did a great job in coming back in that second half and giving ourselves a chance to win, but we didn’t quite get the job done.
“Two home games in a row, you saw Damian McKenzie tonight beat us and, a couple weeks ago, you saw Jordie Barrett beat us, so key players in those moments win games of rugby and we just weren’t quite good enough tonight.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 12, 2021
The result was especially disappointing for Brown given the way in which his team performed in their shock 33-12 win over the Crusaders the week beforehand.
That victory was just their second of the year, and Brown attributed such inconsistency in their week-to-week performances to a lack of self-belief.
“I think it’s time together, leadership, and it’s all of our players believing that we’re better than everyone else in this competition,” he said when asked what is required to maintain the level of performance that was seen against the Crusaders.
“I think we just beat ourselves tonight and weren’t quite good enough.”
Of the 23 penalties dished out by referee Ben O’Keeffe, the Highlanders were the culprits on 11 occasions, which allowed McKenzie to knock over 12 of his 16 points off the tee.
By comparison, Mitch Hunt missed four of his five shots at goal, including two penalty attempts, but Brown emphasised that his squad need to clean up their discipline, particularly when it comes to the offside law, an aspect of the game referees have been strict on officiating this season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 12, 2021
“That’s the law. The referee’s doing a great job refereeing the law. The players aren’t adapting quite quick enough. Just not quite smart enough in those situations for us,” he said.
“It’s pretty clear. It’s been going on since week one, so the smart rugby players adapt, the not so smart ones don’t quite get it right.”
Brown also refused to blame the defeat on the club’s growing injury list that features numerous headline names such as Folau Fakatava, Jermaine Ainsley, Fetuli Paea, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Freedom Vahaakolo and Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Towering lock Pari Pari Parkinson, who only completed his comeback from a long-term ankle injury two weeks ago, appears to be latest admission into the injury ward after he left the match at half-time.
Brown confirmed the 2.04m, 130kg second rower injured the same ankle that he had surgery on, which kept him sidelined for seven months, but the seriousness of the injury won’t be known until later on this week.
“No, I don’t think so. I think we had the team to win the game tonight. We just didn’t play it at the right intensity,” Brown said on whether injuries played its part in the loss to the Chiefs.
“We were soft in a few areas of the game and just didn’t quite play as well as we did last week. If you’re off a little bit in this competition, teams will beat you.”
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