This article was originally published by Staff and reproduced with permission
Despite the 10th defeat of the campaign against the Melbourne rebels on Sunday, the Highlanders scrapped the narrowest margin of Super Rugby Pacific play-off.
A 31-30 rate was enough to secure their required lost bonus points to climb to the eighth place on the Western Force and up the stairs to fight the Blues in Eden Park next week.
However, they will go into that game as a huge underdog after another poor performance – and Foulau Fakatava off the bench had to rescue them with another outstanding performance.
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Fakatawa was injected with about 20 minutes to go and immediately scored a try and set up with an offensive dummy that would surely secure all his black selections.
However, after a loose pass from Williamini Coroi they had to save their lives in a nervous finish that the attempt seemed to exclude them.
It was a performance that left Highlanders captain Aaron Smith with a weird feeling.
“It’s obviously bitter, but we made it,” he told Stan Sport after the loss.
“If they say at the start of the season that you will play in the playoffs, you will accept it.
“With all our strength and focus on next week, we know we’ve got a big game at Auckland, but it’s bloody exciting.
“We are in complete control of what we can do and the things we need to clean up.”
Smith’s sentiments were echoed by Highlanders No. 10 Marty Banks.
“He’s excited about a weird old feeling, losing the game and then we’ve improved,” he told Stan Sport.
“The plan was to do it on our own terms and ignore what happened in Perth last night.
“Our mistakes were our worst enemy, but the credit goes to the rebels. It’s a bit disappointing that we couldn’t seal it ourselves, but now that we’re in the shed we know we got a game next week.”
“There’s a slight gut feeling here that it doesn’t feel right.”
The Highlanders got off to a good start, with Wing Rory van Vugt finishing well after just three minutes to give them a perfect start.
Lock Josh Dixon When Lock Josh Dixon threw some average defense to take a 12-0 lead in the opening quarter, they were in complete control, but they later fell into a hole as they struggled to gain momentum in the game.
The Scrums came under increasing pressure, and they paid the price for a laborious move that went wrong in the 35th minute.
Smith looped around Flanker Billy Harmon in midfield and made a wide pass to the right, but the rebellious Wing Glenn Brothers picked it up comfortably and he left quickly for an important attempt.
The incident reflected the lack of accuracy with the ball in the hands of the Highlanders and they were also guilty of pushing a few passes in a good position.
No. 8 Marino Michele-Tu’o was again among their best, while Josh Timo also made some good meters with his willing carry.
However, the three in the back lacked a fist and Van Vogue missed a sojasapta tackle 52 minutes later which led to a rebellious third attempt.
Banks lacked a spark, and he was stopped after failing to find a touch because the second-half penalty proved costly.
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However, his successor Koroi immediately resumed to alleviate the plight of the Highlanders, and the rebels rushed to the upfield to seize their fourth attempt.
Koroi also misses a relatively easy conversion from Fakatava’s attempt, putting more pressure on him as he chases the game in the final quarter.
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