Highlanders grab the points at last

Date published: April 4 2008

It's too late to grab a play-off place, but the Highlanders have belatedly got their season off to a start, beating the Lions 29-20 at Carisbrook on Friday.

It's too late to grab a play-off place, but the Highlanders have belatedly got their season off to a start, beating the Lions 29-20 at Carisbrook on Friday.

Paul Williams' magnificent solo try just after the interval sealed the win, but the home team made it much harder than it ought to have been, gifting their opponents three tries before sealing the win – and a bonus point – late on.

It was a game befitting the teams' lowly positions on the table. For the first six minutes, it looked like it might be a cracker. For the next 50 all watching got caught up in a gruesome comedy of errors, bar a few scoring moments from the home team. Then there were three blitzkrieg tries from the Lions, and we got a finale.

Glenn Moore will be happier, but still not resting easy. His team once again shoved its weight about up front, and for most of the match the decision to change James Wilson to fly-half seemed to pay a rich dividend. But the trend for mental drift that has pervaded the Highlanders' season once again struck, and between minutes 50 and 60 the Highlanders went from proudly 21-3 ahead to meekly thanking their stars that Jano Vermaak could not kick the conversion to put the Lions in the lead.

Eugene Eloff will be sharing Moore's state of mind. His team, experimental as it was, proved it really can mix it on the road even without a number of stars. Unfortunately, the belief to do so only came when the game was practically up. At some point, this Lions team needs to be told to relax and not force the game too early.

There are also big problems at the scrum, where Super 14 debutant Eugene Maqwelana's debut lasted only 14 minutes before he was rushed off in the cause of needing stability. The substitution made little difference and it was awfully harsh of Eloff to make Maqwelana the scapegoat like that.

The fatal flaw in the Lions' game revealed itself early on too. Having run the clearance from the kick-off left and right with grace and poise back into the Highlanders' 22, 7m from the line the ball was snafffled by the Highlanders' loosies. Time and time again, especially in the first half, promising possession was squandered like that.

From that turnover, the home team runners also stretched their legs. Fetu'u Vainikolo made good ground up the left, and then williams made more up the right. Back it came left, where Vainikolo wriggled out of three tackles only to have the ball dashed from his grasp as he tried to plonk it on the line.

Three minutes later, the Highlanders did get the lead, when Craig Newby offloaded expertly in a tackle to send Johnny Leota crashing over, Wilson converting.

Jaco van Schalkwyk replied with a penalty, but the early flow of the game had been halted by a concussion injury to Hoani MacDonald, and whatever action went on between minutes ten and thirty is best left untold.

Then the Highlanders stretched their lead. Another Lions piece of possession was turned over, resulting in a Highlanders scrum near the line, and then Jimmy Cowan chucked the ball out to Leota on a straight angle for his second.

Shortly before half-time, Lions number eight Willem Alberts made a clean break, but the ball was once again turned over at the breakdown. More good possession wasted. The story of the Lions' half.

There was nothing the Lions could do about Williams' try. Newby took a quick line-out to Williams who dummied and accelerated through the chasers, cutting a fine line all the way to the in-goal. Wilson made it 21-3 with the extras, and it really ought to have been game over.

But the minds switched off, Vainikolo was yellow-carded for a late tackle, and back the Lions came. Van Schalkwyk crashed over near the posts after the Lions had manged to retain possession on the front foot this time. Then Gerhard Mostert stole a line-out, and the ball went left to Rayno Benjamin, who flung it inside for Walter Venter to score. Then Venter himself was the one to make the break, offloading to Alberts near the line for the number eight to crash over unstoppably.

Van Schalkwyk converted his own try, but Vermaak could convert neither second nor third, and still the Lions trailed 21-20. Gradually the Highlanders forwards took control once more – including a truly memorable 35m driven maul that resulted in a Wilson penalty, snf finally, with the Lions burnt out from the fightback, Aaron Bancroft nicked the home team all five points with a try in the corner. Not before time.

Man of the match: Not so many candidates in a pretty tawdry encounter, but Highlanders captain Craig Newby put in a fine display of runninng, tackling and supporting, just pipping Fetu'u Vainikolo who tarnished a fine display with a yellow card.

Moment of the match: Paul Williams' try. Magic.

Villain of the match: Nothing untoward.

The scorers:

For the Highlanders:
Leota 2, Williams, Bancroft
Cons: Wilson 3
Pen: Wilson

For the Lions:
Van Schalkwyk, Venter, Alberts
Con: Van Schalkwyk
Pen: Van Schalkwyk

Highlanders: 15 Paul Williams, 14 Matt Saunders, 13 Brett Mather, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 James Wilson, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Craig Newby (c), 7 Tim Boys, 6 Hoani MacDonald, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 David Hall, 17 Chris King, 18 Isaac Ross, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Toby Morland, 21 Daniel Bowden, 22 Aaron Bancroft.

Lions: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Dusty Noble, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Walter Venter, 11 Rayno Benjamin, 10 Jaco van Schalkwyk, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Joe van Niekerk, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar (c), 5 Gerhard Mostert, 4 Anton van Zyl, 3 Eugene Maqwelana, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Heinke van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Ross Geldenhuys, 18 Dewald Senekal, 19 Franco van der Merwe, 20 Chris Jonck, 21 Rudi Vogt, 22 Jannie Boshoff.

Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Touch judges: Ian Smith (Australia), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Television match official: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Assessor: Stuart Beissel (New Zealand)