Pressure and ruthlessness sadly lacking

Highlanders flanker James Lentjes and team-mates are dejected after losing to the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in April. Photos: Peter McIntosh
Highlanders flanker James Lentjes and team-mates are dejected after losing to the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in April. Photos: Peter McIntosh
The Highlanders bagged a hat-trick they did not want when the side went out at quarterfinal time last Friday night for the third year in a row. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks back on the 2019 season.

The ending of an era did not have the fairy-tale finish it was supposed to.

On paper at the start of the season, the Highlanders had the goods and the talent to go all the way. Matchwinners out wide, the best halfback in the world, world-class loose forwards and a tight five that was developing into a solid unit. The only concern was over the rawness in the No10 jersey, but in Josh Ioane the Highlanders discovered a pivot who could do the job more than adequately.

So how come with all that artillery, did the side have about as much success as the Italian armed forces?

How come there were no chocolates at the end of the season?

Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith and Bulls winger Cornal Hendricks are at a loss after referee Angus Gardner blows fulltime at Forsyth Barr Stadium earlier this month
Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith and Bulls winger Cornal Hendricks are at a loss after referee Angus Gardner blows fulltime at Forsyth Barr Stadium earlier this month
Well, the side was just not ruthless enough. On both attack and defence. How many times did the line of ''not taking those chances'' come out? Far too often. It could have won some games by 50 points or more if it had taken all the chances.

The side was also chronically bad at maintaining pressure. Too often the Highlanders would score points only to then let the momentum change by not controlling the kick-off. It would turn the ball over, and the opposition would swing on to attack and get a sniff of still being in the contest.

The draws with the Chiefs and the Bulls were the most obvious examples of the poor control of the game.

Good teams simply do not do that - the pressure is heaped back on to the opposition for a significant period, leads are extended and games are won.

Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman on the charge against the Bulls earlier this month at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman on the charge against the Bulls earlier this month at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The Highlanders won just six games in the regular season, which in most years would had them out of the running for the competition. But enough bonus points and the inept play of some other sides at crunch time managed to put the Highlanders into the playoffs.

When a side does not go as well as expected, the rumours start circulating of dissent in the team and coaches falling out with each other and players.

But with 38 players in a big squad and the team losing or drawing more than winning, the rumours are always going to start. You have got 15 guys who are unhappy every week because they are not getting a run.

Injuries did not help and being without Liam Squire for basically the whole season was a big blow. Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo also had time off because of injury.

The side started well with two wins but then had a very lean patch. Much was made of selection of teams way ahead of kick-off and there appeared to be a degree of paralysis by analysis in selection.

But with enforced rests and a lack of depth and trust in some positions the coaching team had to look ahead to some degree.

A draw is a draw but the side played a heck of a lot of Friday-night games, which many players do not like. The bottom line also got hit with the canning of the home match against the Crusaders.

So the team will now break up and new heroes - hopefully - will emerge.

The new side will get a year's grace at the most to rebuild and put together some combinations on the paddock.

After that, it is all about winning - this is professional sport, after all.

Comments

Aaay..Italia! Bosch!

Thrasha them.

Haha Poticki.

Yes disappointing overall but still some quality moments.

2020 a rebuilding year so God knows what ll happen but a lot of other sides will be in the same boat so it may go OK.

A shame we can t offer Folau a place, he d probably accept huge pay cut get to get back on the park.