Gone - Highlanders pay dearly for lapses

Highlanders players look up at a big screen  to see if   they have scored  against  the Bulls in...
Highlanders players look up at a big screen to see if they have scored against the Bulls in their Super Rugby clash at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin last night. It was not to be. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Vrooom - yes, that was the Highlanders playoff hopes disappearing into the wide blue yonder.

The side drew 24-24 with the Bulls last night at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and with it has lost pretty much any chance of getting into playoffs, ending a run which first started in 2014.

The Highlanders had the opportunity to win the game but it was too sloppy with its handling and lacked composure when the tryline came into view.

Highlander Ben Smith and his daughter, Annabelle, wait for the kicking tee to be brought out  at...
Highlander Ben Smith and his daughter, Annabelle, wait for the kicking tee to be brought out at Forsyth Barr Stadium. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Surprisingly, the South Africans came home the better side and with the draw have put themselves into a slim chance of making the playoffs.

The Highlanders have a game left in the season - now a meaningless match in Invercargill next Friday night against the Waratahs.

The home side looked slick in patches but there was again not quite enough polish and precision to win the game.

Whatever the side has done since it started training in late November it has not spent enough time on kick-off receptions.

Every time in last night's game it immediately put pressure back on itself after scoring by not clearing the ball well.

The game is about basics and that is where the Highlanders let themselves down.

Winger Waisake Naholo had scored 13 minutes into the second half and pushed the side into a 24-14 lead.

But the pesky Bulls would not go away and camped inside the Highlanders half for more than 10 minutes near the back end of the game.

The Highlanders stayed strong but the dam eventually burst when Bulls replacement hooker Jaco Visagie went over with five minutes left.

The Highlanders were not accurate enough throughout the game and the ball just did not go to hand at the right time. Best for the home team was halfback Aaron Smith, first five-eighth Josh Ioane and flanker James Lentjes.

The Highlanders had all the ball in the first 20 minutes and it eventually showed on the scoreboard.

The first try for the home side came after 12 minutes.

Smith put a chip into open territory which was spilt by Bulls centre Dylan Sage within 10m of his own tryline. Fullback Josh McKay skirted in, picked up the ball and scored.

Highlander Waisake Naholo scores one of his two tries.  PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Highlander Waisake Naholo scores one of his two tries. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
But the home team mucked up the kickoff which handed the ball over.

A run to the line by livewire hooker Schalk Brits looked to have led to a try to big Bulls lock Jason Jenkins. But Schalks was ruled to have knocked the ball on and the try to Jenkins was rubbed out.

The home team made the most of the letoff and scored its second try halfway through the first half. After a long passage of play, midfielder Sio Tomkinson put a nice chip kick into space and that winger - what was his name again? - Naholo scored his 43rd try for the Highlanders.

But this is the Highlanders and they never shut the door.

It once again mucked up the kick-off and the Bulls swarmed back on to attack. Then just before the half-hour mark, a speculative chip kick from the Bulls bounced up and Bulls fullback Divan Rossouw ran away to score.

The scoring continued and McKay got his second try and then Jenkins did finally get his try as the teams threw the ball around with plenty of endeavour.

The Highlanders could have scored twice as many tries as they did in the first half but went into the break only five points ahead.

Highlanders  24
Josh McKay 2, Waisake Naholo 2 tries; Josh Ioane 2 con

Bulls 24
Divan Rossouw, Jason Jenkins, Jaco Viusagie tries; Handre Pollard 3 con, pen]

Halftime: 19-14 Highlanders

Crowd: 15,123

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