When all is said and done, the Highlanders v Crusaders match on Saturday was outstanding. Played on pitch-perfect conditions in Forsyth-Barr Stadium, it was rugby at a break-neck speed. What is also true, is that it was ‘high stakes rugby’ with a high cost outcome for the losing side especially.

Highlanders 27 Crusaders 30

Highlights do not do this encounter justice: watch the full match here. An all out assault, the hits and collisions will still be felt by players, two days after the match. The commitment was on a level close to Test Match rugby. But those tests would have to be at the very pinnacle of rugby (across the globe) such was this powerful example of Super Rugby.

And while the match quality is self-evident, the high stakes rugby saw from both sides was a mute point. It cost the Highlanders the win; or it was the unpracticed tactics and strategy that hurt them. After assuming a large lead, the home side did not hold the pedal down. They looked up, and watched the opposition chase them down.

Highlanders: High Stakes Rugby, High Cost Outcome

It is not the first time that this team has had to watch the opposition repeal a large lead. The Waratahs almost did it in March 2016. After 54 minutes, up 0-30, they were ‘cruising’ after some great running play. Something happened, which ‘put the brakes on’ and in a frightful turnaround, the ‘Tahs only lost the match in the last moments.

You would have thought that a smart team like the Highlanders would have learned, but on Saturday they played their cards again too early. Over confident, the high stakes rugby could be viewed in two ways:

  1. They have confidence in their game. With Tony Brown inspiring them to ‘chance their arm’ it releases the boundaries. Once the side get ‘their tail up’ they abandon the traditional and allow team members to exert their natural instincts.
  2. A bad habit of sitting back on a good score, and hoping that substitutes will join the game and continue that high performance. They ignore the threat of an opposition; who on Saturday got a smell of a chance, and said ‘we can do this!’.

They did not judge the situation well enough many have critisized, and the high cost outcome which has denied them a valuable haul of points available [four at the least]. The ‘high cost’ was in their falling position on the points ladder–and in damaging the positive team culture fans had assumed that Brown would bring.

Foot off the Pedal – Who is Driving the Highlanders?

Regular captain Ben Smith had received a concussion in Round One, and the assigned team co-captain Ash Dixon is still recovering from a back injury. With no established leader in place, it meant a stand-in captain was chosen. Elliot Dixon, a 65 cap Highlander who fans know gives his ‘all for the jersey’ was called on. But was it the right choice?

Beside him was Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga–both All Blacks, and both big talkers. As well, they had Tom Franklin, the captain of Otago team. So the leadership group on the field had both experience and good knowledge of how to succeed. So Dixon cannot be assigned any guilt wholly. Was it a case of ‘a collective ignorance’ of the danger the Crusaders posed?

You would hope not, as the coach of the Crusaders is Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson. The man who has led the Canterbury province to several NPC titles and has won many games for the ‘red and black’ as a player, so you presume any smart team would be wary of his side. A team who underestimates a group coached by Robertson might again, be seen to have dis-respected any high cost outcome.

Head coach Tony Brown told the Otago Daily Times “Last week we didn’t execute anything. Tonight we did not get a lot [a win] but the good thing for me was everything we did all week with our planning.

“If a couple of things had gone our way in that second half, we would have won the game.”

Mistakes Made on the Field, and ‘That Yellow Card’

Clearly, decisions made this week; and last week too. The style of rugby played came with a risk. Altogether, the game saw few penalties (10-6) but one which was glaring was the penalty try awarded. It occurred after two times where the Crusaders came within inches of the ‘blue zone’. With a better scrum, they forced the Highlanders into backtracking, and interfering with the ball. Penalty try was the call, but in fairness it could have been reset. The referee gave little warnings during the game, but he saw an infringement which was the catalyst that began the shift in momentum.

Possession was a key statistic from Saturday night too. An almost unheard of 73% possession for the Crusaders was an almost unstoppable force. 67% in the first half, where they were down 17-6 but incredibly the ‘Saders held the ball for 79% of the second half. It resulted in the ‘Landers making a massive 137 tackles. So, how did that occur?

Handling errors were a high cost for the home side. They gave up possession 15 times in the game, and that was not counting ball kicked away – 33 times they opted to kick. The worst of those was in the final scoring play of the match. Desperate to hold a slender 27-25 lead, they attempted to get in position to attack. And while they had success through the individual magic of Waisake Naholo, Sopoaga went for a long range drop goal: in many peoples eyes, the epitome of high stakes rugby.

Key Moment That Changed the Match Outcome

It missed, and giving the ball back to the confident Crusaders, it soon went through over a dozen hands before big winger Seta Tamanivalu (see main picture) sniffed the line. He busted four tackles to score at the death. Game Lost!.

Highlander players show their dejection after their loss during the round two Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on March 4, 2017 (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

A real heartbreaker, as the option chosen was a clear example of high stakes rugby from Sopoaga. Holding the ball–because, at least his team were ahead–but in losing possession, it was similar to how Wales lost to England three weeks ago. Both poor on-filed decisions, with a very, very high cost outcome for each.

Bad Timing of Smith Substitution

Substitutions also had an affect, with Aaron Smith taken off 69 minutes. That may have been predetermined, but once that yellow card was awarded, that sub will have been rued by management. Not having Smith on, it put more pressure on Sopoaga who unusually suffered a ‘crack in his armour’ on the night.

In terms of that yellow card–there are calls in support, as much as questions over the call. Former All Black Christian Cullen is scathing of the decision, but World Rugby have issued a dictate. It means that ‘anytime a player goes into the air’ it can possibly be a high cost outcome situation. The player whose hips are above the shoulders of his opposition, must be supported and/or left unchallenged.

In all reality, Malakai Fekitoa made a poor choice. His thought should have been to bail on the attempt, but since he attempted to go for it then he was seen as ultimately responsible for David Havili coming down hard. And today, in the outcome-based decision making, he was yellow carded [Fekitoa].

With 14 men for the final eight minutes, the Crusaders overcame a huge deficit to reclaim the lead, and disappoint the huge crowd who witnessed another classic Mainland Battle.

What do the Highlanders Need to Change?

They need to know their opposition strengths. On Saturday, holding the ball would have been key. Just like the threat from the All Blacks, if you kick the ball back to the Crusaders, then their instinct [when chasing a win] is to run it. And while they may not have had the big names like Dan Carter, Richie Mo’unga or even Kieran Read (still not returned to full action) they knew to ‘back themselves’.

In fact, so would every Super Rugby side in reality–but when in a position to influence the outcome, the Highlanders needed to think ‘old school’. Choose up the jumper rugby, just like in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. Whereas in 2015 it was a higher scoring final, situational analysis is needed in professional rugby. Know how the game is changing, and react positively–the Highlanders made bad decisions.

Possibly, with Smith on the field he may have been able to persuade Sopoaga not to go for the risky drop goal. Better decision making was called for. In any event, the high stakes rugby is costing the Highlanders.

In the 2016 semi final, they were unable to combat the open-style of the Lions (on the Johannesburg ground) and paid the price. They did take the right decisions in the quarter final, and this 2017 side must make precise decisions from now on. Dropping points now will be harder to recover in the later stages of Super Rugby commentators will agree. And after a high risk outcome last week, the time is now to play more settled, no nonsense rugby to get back into winning form.

From now on, rebuild their battered confidence–before they can again, look to incorporate any ‘high stakes rugby’ in their game.

Oh, and get Ben Smith back to full health asap! He is the key to their best bet at the high stakes game of Super Rugby.

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The Highlanders next travel away to Auckland, to face the Blues on Saturday March 11.

“Main photo credit”

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