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The ruck was secured, Aaron Smith was in the process of passing the ball and the Highlanders were looking to build pressure on the Waratahs’ defence.
The result was catastrophic.
As the TMO review showed Hooper landing on his head, having been tipped on a late clean-out, the decision was never going to be anything but a red card for the Highlanders first five.
It was a needless and completely avoidable act, not an unfortunate moment of bad timing, as many red cards are.
The score was 7-7 at that point.
Twenty minutes later, when Marty Banks emerged as Gilbert’s replacement, it was 19-7 – the Waratahs twice using their numbers advantage to cross for tries.
And that was effectively the game.
The Highlanders fought back to 19-15.
But poor ball security and a below average final 20 minutes left it to come up short, 32-15, at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin yesterday.
While they remain a strong chance of claiming Super Rugby Pacific’s final playoff spot, it was a spot that should have been secured last night.
Sickness had impacted the team.
Key players Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Jermaine Ainsley and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u were all among those impacted.
But this was a game the Highlanders still could have won — the red card and a multitude of handling errors letting them down.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown was disappointed with the performance and felt the team’s disrupted preparation showed in the performance.
‘‘We started pretty well. Then after about 10 minutes we didn’t quite do enough right,’’ he said.
‘‘We gave away soft penalties, [the] red card and then didn’t retain the ball. It was a really frustrating night for us.
‘‘... We’ve definitely got to win [next week against the Rebels].
‘‘Destiny’s in our hands; we need a performance. It is just frustrating for us as a team to go backwards so far, after we’d been building quite nicely.’’
Indeed the Highlanders started well, Hugh Renton coming up with a breakdown turnover and Josh Dickson crashing over under the posts after two minutes.
A turnover off the ensuing kickoff by James Lentjes had the Highlanders on the attack again.
But they were unable to capitalise and the Waratahs came roaring back.
They built phases of their own, before No 8 Will Harris brushed off Scott Gregory to score under the posts.
The Highlanders had chances with two penalties midway through the half — turning down two shots at goal, only to blunder on the lineout drive.
At that point Gilbert’s red card left the Highlanders reeling and the Waratahs capitalised.
They used their numbers to score out wide shortly afterwards, through winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, before Hooper split through the middle to make it 19-7.
The Highlanders worked their way back into the game after halftime.
Banks kicked a penalty as he emerged as the replacement once Gilbert’s 20 minutes were done.
Numbers turned the Highlanders way shortly after, when Waratahs prop Paddy Ryan was yellow carded for a head-on-head clean out on Josh Dickson.
The Highlanders made use of that advantage, as Gregory went over in the right-hand corner to make it 19-15.
Tane Edmed kicked two penalty goals to make it a 10-point margin as the Waratahs gained ascendancy, before he scored late to make it 32-15.
Liam Coombes-Fabling added a late consolation try for the hosts.