December 10, 2023

Super Rugby: New lows for the Highlanders

Super Rugby: New lows for the Highlanders

Analysis – after the Blues’ demolition of the Waratahs last night, the one big problem Super Rugby Pacific has was looking more obvious than ever. New Zealand teams wipe the floor with the Australian ones, in front of poor crowds and disinterested media, with no real turning point in sight that could take the competition back to its heyday.

A couple of hours later, though, the Western Force decided to disregard all that when they cruised to a surprisingly comfortable 30-17 win over the Highlanders on their home turf in Perth. Does this signal some sort of big shift in the powerbase of rugby in this part of the world? No, unfortunately it says more about the Highlanders and where they are headed as a team this season and perhaps beyond.

While a lot of praise should be given to the Force and their loyal fans, as they played to their strengths in the first half to lead 24-3 at the break, really the Highlanders only have themselves to blame for what was an inept performance.

Pari Pari Parkinson, Ethan de Groot and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, three players who really should know better, found themselves in the sin bin. Mikaele-Tu’u’s was the result of a penalty try.

With that sort of approach, you’re pretty much handing the game to even a team of battlers like the Force. They were clearly having issues with referee Nic Berry, which is not the first time this season they haven’t got on the same page as an Australian whistleblower.

But this is just surface level stuff. The Highlanders are lagging behind the other New Zealand teams off the field too, they can be excused for struggling to develop talent in their region due to its lower population, but recruiting is still seemingly done on ‘whatever’s left over’ basis rather than building a solid reason for blue chip players to want to move there and that lack of depth was exposed again last night.

All of a sudden, a trip to Sydney to face the Waratahs then one to Canberra against the Brumbies in a fortnight, look very much like opportunities for Australian rugby to get more precious trans-Tasman wins.

Other observations from the weekend:

The Force are easily the most challenged team in Super Rugby, given that any away game involves either a flight to Australia’s east coast or a multi-game tour of New Zealand.

They are the only team who has to tour now that there is no South African or Argentinean leg, and because of their small market value their recent trip to our shores involved games in Invercargill and Palmerston North.

So, for them to get up at home in front of a decent crowd was a very positive sign for rugby’s frontier side.

Clearly having a bit of a soft schedule has helped Beauden Barrett turn down the volume of talk about his form of late.

Against the hapless Waratahs, Barrett picked up where he left off after his very good second half against the Rebels, taking over the goal kicking after Stephen Perofeta had to leave the park. His flawless display off the tee showed that it’s either rocks or diamonds right now – Barrett looked like he couldn’t hit the side of one of the family milking sheds against the Rebels.

The Chiefs and Drua match had a scoreline that most were predicting, but it came after a competitive first half by the Fijians in which they took it directly to the competition leaders.

Both sides should be commended for committing only a handful of handling errors in rain so heavy it might have even made Auckland’s mayor look out the window.

The Crusaders actually had a pretty similar experience to the Highlanders when the Rebels racked up a healthy lead in their match on Friday night, but that comparison ended pretty quickly when the defending champions closed the game out in very professional style.

There are a lot of plaudits going the Chiefs’ way due to their impressive record, but it’s about now that people should remember we were all saying exactly the same things about the Blues last year – right up until they lost a home final to the Crusaders.


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