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Why Tony Brown won't be fretting following another Highlanders loss

By Tom Vinicombe
Tony Brown. (Photo by Derek Morrison/Photosport)

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Another week, another defeat for the Highlanders.

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The Highlanders have now played all four of their rival New Zealand franchises and despite holding reasonable leads in two of those four matches, they’ve been unable to secure a single win and only managed a solitary bonus point to show for their troubles.

As such, they sit tenth on the overall ladder, ahead of only the hapless Melbourne Rebels and new boys Moana Pasifika – who’ve managed to play just one match this season due to Covid.

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Despite all that, however, they’re not looked entirely off the pace in any of their matches so far throughout 2022.

Their biggest loss came at the hands of the Crusaders, 34-19, but even in that match, the Highlanders had at one point held a 13-0 lead. It’s not that they’re being consistently outplayed across the park, they’re simply making crucial errors at key moments in matches – while injuries haven’t helped their situation.

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Head coach Tony Brown suggested following the Round 3 loss to the Hurricanes that his side could be facing a “pretty tough season” if they couldn’t find their “mojo” in the coming weeks and while the southerners again struggled to put together a cohesive attacking performance against the Blues, it won’t all be doom and gloom in the Highlanders camp, who have a run of home matches coming up in their schedule.

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“It’s a young Highlanders team,” Brown said following the game at North Harbour Stadium. “We’ve lost a lot of leadership so we’ve just gotta make sure that when’s the game on the line, when we’re having to deal with pressure situations, we stay calm and we execute. If everyone executes their role then we’re fine.

“For me, 0 and 4 against all the New Zealand teams – especially three of them away from home – it’s not the end of our campaign. It’s a bloody tough competition. We go home now and we play three of our next four games at home. When we finish those, we’ll know where we’re at.”

While Brown is technically correct in that three of the Highlanders’ matches to date have been ‘away’ games, only two have been played outside of Highlanders territory due to the Queenstown bubble in place at the start of the season.

Regardless, Brown will be hoping his side execute better at set-piece time, especially with a tight-five unit that is on par with the best sides in the competition, at least on paper.

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“We’ve just gotta compete for longer,” he said. “Obviously, we got put under pressure there at lineout time, didn’t quite execute around our roles there. The scrum contest was pretty even but when we’re getting put under pressure there, we can’t give away penalties.

“I think we’ve just got to get better right across the park, stay in the game longer, [at] key moments, execute our roles.”

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There’s also a significant ray of hope the Highlanders can clench onto which should prove prosperous in the future: trans-Tasman fixtures.

If last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign is anything to go by, the Highlanders should at least be able to secure a handful of competition points later in the season when they square off with the Australian sides, who they went unbeaten against in 2021. With eight teams qualifying for the play-offs, the Highlanders shouldn’t struggle to make the knockout stages of the competition, even if does take them a while to find their form.

So while Tony Brown will be searching for ways to unlock his side’s potential, the four losses to kick off the Highlanders’ campaign shouldn’t be keeping him awake at night. As Brown said, the Highlanders’ season is still very much alive and how they’re performing in the final rounds of the competition will prove considerably more important in measuring the success of 2022 than how they’re performing at this stage of the tournament.

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