At Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland: Highlanders 45 (Pari Pari Parkinson try 8min, Sam Gilbert try 15min, Hugh Renton try 25min, Fetuli Paea 51min try, Mosese Dawai try 64min, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u try 67min, Thomas Umaga-Jensen try 78min; Sam Gilbert 5 cons) Moana Pasifika 17 (Solomone Funaki try 5min, Levi Aumua try 22min; Lincoln McClutchie pen, 2 cons) HT: 19-17
Yellow card: Timoci Tavatavanawai (Moana Pasifika) 70min
All Blacks Ethan de Groot and Folau Fakatava have lifted the Highlanders to their third win in succession, but they had to overcome a spirited Moana Pasifika side and a poor first half.
The Highlanders missed 19 tackles in the first spell alone and their discipline was substandard for long periods, with lock Pari Pari Parkinson a repeat offender.
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However, de Groot monstered the Moana Pasifika scrum in a highly impressive 61-minute shift and Fakatava provided the attacking spark off the bench to set up tries to Mosese Dawai and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u in the final quarter – securing the all-important bonus point.
Moana Pasifika showed improvement after their heavy loss to the Hurricanes last week.
Levu Aumua showed his immense strength in the Moana Pasifika midfield, frequently taking two or three defenders to take him to ground.
With halfback Ere Enari finding plenty of willing runners close to the ruck, the home side asked plenty of questions of the Highlanders on defence with their sheer physicality.
As expected, winger Timoci Tavatavanawai beat defenders every time he got the ball, while the Highlanders also heaped pressure on themselves with their poor discipline.
Despite playing into the wind, Moana Pasifika were unfortunate not to head into the sheds in the lead, but they couldn’t capitalise on a great opportunity just before break.
With three tries in the bank, the Highlanders led 19-17 at halftime and they squeezed the Moana Pasifika pack in the second 40 minutes, and Thomas Umaga-Jensen’s excellent late try was the icing on the cake.
But, they were again dogged by injuries. Big lock and lineout caller Will Tucker went off for an HIA after just 26 minutes and did not return.
Parkinson also left the field in the third quarter, forcing All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell to operate as a lock in his return to action.
The big moment
Highlanders winger Jonah Lowe was sent to the bin after 54 minutes with the score at 26-17 and Moana Pasifika hot on attack, but the TMO spotted a knock on by Ere Enari in the buildup and referee Ben O’Keeffe had to reverse his decision. From the subsequent Highlanders scrum, de Groot won another set-piece penalty and the Highlanders got out of jail.
Sean Withy, Hugh Renton, de Groot, Jermaine Ainsley and Aaron Smith were again the Highlanders’ best performers, while Fakatava was sharp off the bench. Moana Pasifika were well served by Miracle Failagi, Danny Toala, Tavatavanawai and Aumua. However, de Groot stamped his class and power over the contest.
6.5/10. It was willing but scrappy, and both sets of coaches will have plenty to work on after their reviews. However, the Highlanders will be happy with another strong finish as their bench provided huge impact. Coach Clarke Dermody will be particularly pleased with the performance of lock Max Hicks, who replaced Tucker after 26 minutes and grew as the game went on.
The big picture
The Highlanders have some momentum after three wins in a row but they face the Hurricanes in Dunedin on Saturday in a litmus test of their progress. Moana Pasifika travel to the Crusaders as their search for the first win of the campaign goes on.