Highlanders seal playoffs spot in style

Highlanders winger Timoci Tavatavanawa goes over in the corner despite the desperate attempt of...
Highlanders winger Timoci Tavatavanawa goes over in the corner despite the desperate attempt of Fijian Drua defender Taniela Rakuro to stop him. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Now that is how you play rugby.

Pinpoint cross-field kicks.

Sharp passing.

Running into gaps.

Even the odd driving maul is permissible if it ends with a winger going over in the corner.

The Highlanders produced one of their more fluent attacking displays and clinched a playoff spot with a dazzling 39-3 win against the Fijian Drua at Forsyth Barr Stadium yesterday.

They still have one round-robin match remaining, but win or lose against the Hurricanes next week and they will still feature at that business end of Super Rugby Pacific.

And the best thing is they really looked like a playoff team.

Their own flying Fijians — Jona Nareki, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai — scored four tries between them and every one was a treat for the 15,036 spectators.

Nareki nabbed two on his return from a hamstring complaint and was threatening with basically every touch.

Halfback Folau Fakatava had an outstanding match in his 50th for the club. He brought a lot of energy, and loose forward Oliver Haig was busy in the tight exchanges.

Coach Clarke Dermody was a content man.

"We obviously had to turn our season around a few weeks ago," he said.

"We got a bit of a shock last week against the Blues ... but there was a bit on this game.

"The boys were able to execute the plan for a long time in that game. It was a well-executed territory pressure game that we were trying to play."

Holding a side which as much flair as the Drua to three points took some gutsy defence, and some luck. The Drua blew at least one try and fate denied them another.

"That is not an easy team to contain.

"You could see passages, especially leading into halftime, how dangerous they are when they get their game going."

Lock Fabian Holland put in a quality shift but took a blow to the shoulder late. Dermody said the big fellow was keen to continue and "by all accounts he is going to be fine".

Highlanders fullback Jacob Raumaitavuki-Kneepkens is tackled by Fiji Drua flanker Kitone Salawa....
Highlanders fullback Jacob Raumaitavuki-Kneepkens is tackled by Fiji Drua flanker Kitone Salawa. Jake Te Hiwi is the other Highlander in support.
The Highlanders made a bright start, stringing together some promising phases. But it was the Drua who should have opened the scoring.

Powerhouse No 8 Elia Canakaivata busted through and only a desperate ankle tap from Fakatava prevented him scoring.

The danger did not end there. First five Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula put up a kick pass into the in-goal area and only a wicked off-break stopped winger Selestino Ravutaumada diving on it to score.

The Highlanders had to cling on a bit more before eventually clearing it.

Then they pounced. Haig took a clean lineup take and the Highlanders swung in behind him and mauled their way upfield.

They were able to slingshot of that back of that. Fakatava flicked it out to Sam Gilbert who shovelled it out to Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens who got a cracking pass to Nareki who finished superbly in the corner.

Nareki and Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens combined again in a 70m effort.

Fakatava switched direction from the back of the scrum and passed to Nareki, who sprinted through a gap, busted the cover tackle and waited until he drew the last defender to offload to Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens for another five points.

The Drua trailed 18-0 at the break but cut the margin with an early penalty to Armstrong-Ravula.

But the home side replied quickly. Nareki got another and this time it was some fast hands by Sean Withy which created the space for the winger to get across.

It is hard to single out the best try but Tavatavanawai’s five-pointer was rather special.

Gilbert made a pinpoint cross field kick for Tavatavanawai who whipped it back inside to Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens who sent it straight back for the robust winger to score.

It was pretty much perfect.

Super Rugby Pacific

The scores

Highlanders 39

Jona Nareki 2, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Nikora Broughton tries; Sam Gilbert 4 con, 2 pen

Fiji Drua 3

Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula pen

Halftime: 18-0