Force fall short against Highlanders despite late surge
The Western Force had to settle for a 15-25 loss to the Highlanders despite a strong second half performance in tonight’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Round 2 clash at HBF Park, in front of a season record crowd of 13,582.
Captain Kyle Godwin heaped praise on the loyal Force Members and said there are plenty of lessons to be taken from the contest.
“It was a good learning curve coming out of this game. Hopefully we can be better for it next week against the Hurricanes,” Godwin explained.
“I want to thank the Sea of Blue. They’ve come out in droves, they’ve been passionate all season, so thank you very much for the support.”
The Force made a bright start to the contest, enjoying early possession and launching a wave of strong attacks into Highlanders’ territory. They came close to opening the scoring in the sixth minute when lock Sitaleki Timani made a storming run into the 22 but was cut down by some solid defence before he could get his pass away.
The Highlanders responded and got themselves into the Force half, creating the opening try in the 12th minute when winger Jona Nareki breached the Force defensive line after quick play by star scrumhalf Aaron Smith from a lineout ball. Flyhalf Mitch Hunt added the conversion to give the Highlanders a 0-7 lead.
The Highlanders kept the Force inside their half, applying pressure through some strong running by their back row at the breakdown. This eventually allowed them to create a second try, by prop Ayden Johnstone, who drove over after a five-metre lineout. Hunt pulled the conversion wide for the Highlanders to lead by 12 points after 23 minutes.
Shortly before the score, the Force lost flyhalf Jake McIntyre after he took a hard knock to the head. He was replaced by Domingo Miotti.
The Force got themselves back into the Highlanders half, holding the ball through several phases and eventually earning a penalty, which Miotti kicked to reduce the deficit to 3-12.
But within minutes, the Highlanders restored their 12-point cushion at 3-15 through a penalty by Hunt and they went further ahead in the 36th minute when centre Scott Gregory scored their third try off a strong maul drive inside the Force 22. Hunt again pushed his conversion wide leaving the Highlanders 3-20 ahead.
The Force struck back two minutes from the break after centre Henry Taefu breached the defence from a lineout ball. This put the Force behind the Highlanders defence and created a try-scoring opportunity for scrumhalf Tomás Cubelli in his 50th Super Rugby appearance after he exchanged passes with winger Jordan Olowofela. Miotti added the extra points to reduce the visitors’ lead to 10-20 at half time.
The Force lifted the tempo of their game in the second half, forcing the Highlanders into conceding a string of penalties under pressure in the opening 10 minutes and twice coming close to adding to their score, only to be repelled by a firm Highlanders’ defence.
The Force were reduced to 14 men in the 60th minute when replacement prop Greg Holmes received a yellow card for a dangerous tackle. The Highlanders kicked for touch from the resulting penalty and put in a strong drive from the lineout to create the opportunity for Scott Gregory to score his second try of the match. Hunt missed the conversion, moving the score to 10-25.
The Force breached the Highlanders again in the 79th minute when replacement prop Angus Wagner scored his first Super Rugby try after some great build up play by his teammates. Miotti’s conversion hit the uprights leaving the Force 10 points adrift at 15-25.
The late surge wasn’t enough, as the Highlanders came away with the win in an entertaining and fierce battle. Head coach Tim Sampson outlined his determination to see the squad bounce back next week against the Hurricanes.
“The Highlanders were ruthless. They were physical at the breakdown and very quick.” Sampson said.
“After tonight’s performance, it’s critical we bounce back. It’s something we have to work hard for.”
Godwin echoed Sampson’s sentiment.
“It’s very exciting to go back to New Zealand. It’s an opportunity for us to redeem ourselves after tonight,” the captain said.
“I’m looking forward to this upcoming training week to make sure we correct a few things and put out a better performance next week.”
Western Force – Tries: Tomás Cubelli, Angus Wagner. Conversions: Domingo Miotti. Penalties: Miotti.
Highlanders – Tries: Jona Nareki, Ayden Johnstone, Scott Gregory (2), Conversions: Mitch Hunt. Penalties: Hunt.
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