Decent start for team with drive

Highlanders skipper Billy Harmon has fellow loose forward Hugh Renton in support as he challenges...
Highlanders skipper Billy Harmon has fellow loose forward Hugh Renton in support as he challenges Moana Pasifika halfback Ere Enari (left) and No 8 Lotu Inisi in the first game of the season. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
It is not quite the halfway point of their season - they are six games down and have eight to go - but bye week makes for an opportune time to gauge how the Highlanders are travelling. Hayden Meikle offers this mid-term report.

The numbers

The Highlanders are eighth - the final playoff spot - in the Super Rugby Pacific table. They have won two games, lost four games and grabbed three bonus points to sit on 11 points, two behind the seventh-placed Fijian Drua and two ahead of ninth-placed Moana Pasifika. They have scored 19 tries (eighth-most in the competition), made 26 clean breaks (worst), gained 2847m (eighth), beaten 162 defenders (fifth), won 85.7% of their tackles (fifth) and claimed 82.2% of their lineouts (seventh).

Best performance

There was a lot to like about the Highlanders’ brave effort in the 37-29 loss to the Blues, and they played well in the first half of the 27-21 loss to the Brumbies. But the nod has to go to their 23-21 win over the Waratahs in Sydney. That was gutsy, featuring a star turn from Folau Fakatava and a fine all-round game from Timoci Tavatavanawai.

Worst performance

Your most recent loss is always the worst - and for the Highlanders, that is very much the case. They were smashed off the field by the Hurricanes at Easter, and the 47-12 scoreline was even slightly flattering. A very good Hurricanes team made it clear the Highlanders are some way off the pace.

Good things

The numbers do not necessarily back it up, but the Highlanders are a better team to watch this year. The backline looks particularly promising. The Hurricanes game and the first 30 minutes against the Chiefs aside, the defensive work has been solid. And if you take out the Hurricanes debacle, two wins and two competitive losses and one stirring comeback represent a decent start for a new-look Highlanders team trying to grow.

Bad things

Execution. It can be a meaningless buzzword but it can also highlight a rugby team’s inability to make (or hold) that final pass or turn opportunities into points. The Highlanders are struggling in that regard. For all their promise and endeavour, they are still battling to score tries. The losing streak against New Zealand teams has hit 19. Goal kicking has dropped off a tad. And while the lineout numbers are solid, the feeling is the set piece has been a bit messy, perhaps due to the inexperience of the hookers and the regular changes at lock.

Overall grade

C-plus. It might even have been a B-minus had it not been for the shocker against the Hurricanes. The Highlanders have clearly made some progress, they clearly show some promise and they clearly have some way to go.

Three best players

1. Billy Harmon. The indefatigable captain had one minor blip when he was benched for missing a team meeting, but he has otherwise been outstanding. Relentless on defence and always on hand to help with the ball.

2. Rhys Patchell. Had an off night (along with 22 others) against the Hurricanes. But the Welsh first five has looked classy.

3. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens. A new star is born. Has scored five tries (equal second in Super Rugby) and beaten 26 defenders (third). A real athlete who generates excitement whenever he touches the ball and appears to have all the skills needed to play at the top level.

The run home

Rebels (away), Reds (away), Force (home), Moana Pasifika (away), Crusaders (home), Blues (away), Fijian Drua (home), Hurricanes (away). The Highlanders need to win two of their next three games against Australian opposition, and beat the Drua in Dunedin, and that might be enough to sneak into the playoffs. Moana Pasifika will be tough in Nuku’alofa. Then comes the big question: can they break their long losing streak against New Zealand opposition?