Rugby: Doubtful if Highlanders have made progress

COMMENT: The Highlanders have one game left but the season is gone, with the question as to whether enough progress has been made this season hanging over the team.

The disappointing 27-22 loss to the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday morning, after the visiting side led 19-5 at half-time, has left the Highlanders in 10th.

They could drop another couple of places should they lose their last game of the season, against the Force in Perth next Saturday night, and other results do not go their way.

This year was said to be year two of the three-year plan to get to the semifinals, and progress was expected.

But with just one more win than last year, progress has been glacial in some departments.

The side has lost its past four games, and the thrashing of the now table-topping Bulls in Palmerston North in late March is a distant memory.

The Highlanders lost Saturday's game in the final 30 minutes, as the weariness of playing at altitude kicked in, with players slipping off tackles and the Lions players easily reaching the advantage line.

The side has failed to fire in the past month, and the reason for those four straight losses can be put down to many causes.

But for each of those concerns, there is also a rock-solid argument that the side has just not shown up.

The scrum has been seriously wonky and props Clint Newland and Jamie Mackintosh have failed to show any dominance.

Sure, they have faced some daunting front rows - especially the Sharks - but Mackintosh is an All Black and Newland is talked about in some quarters as a future one, so there should have been a more steady ship up front.

Handling has been poor at times, and passes have been not quite accurate enough.

At this level it is all about being absolutely ruthless.

When a chance comes along, it must be taken.

Too many times the Highlanders have had ball in good areas and failed to nail the points.

Playing a game based around creating phases, and eventually finding space to attack, the ball has been lost thanks to a knock on, or a loose pass.

Then there is the much talked about experience factor, or the lack of it, in the Highlanders' case.

On Saturday after the loss to the Lions, assistant coach Peter Russell talked about a lack of experience at critical times, pointing to the Lions having Andre Pretorius in their No 10 jersey, a player who has been around for a fair while.

The Highlanders had Jayden Hayward at first five-eighth on Saturday so Pretorius is truly an old sea dog compared to a young pup like Hayward.

But does inexperience excuse the knock ons, and the dropped ball ?A schoolboy could tell you when you are ahead, you play the game in the opposition territory and do not turn the ball over.

Experience though does tell you, silly mistakes cost games.

And there have been a few too many of those this year.

In all the games played so far there has been a key moment that has turned the game.

Unfortunately for the Highlanders, most of these key moments have not been to their advantage.

As for referees, the Highlanders have had the wrong end of the stick a fair few times.

The argument is that rulings even themselves out over a period of a season.

But do they? Not really.

No-one keeps count to back up that theory.

All Black coach Graham Henry said last month many of the games were lotteries because of the rulings at the breakdown.

One must wonder why one of the game's better referees, Craig Joubert, has been on the touchline for the Highlanders' two games in Africa, while a couple of novices have been making rulings in the middle.

The Highlanders last year salvaged something of their season, with a convincing win over the champions Crusaders outfit in their final-round game.

The Force are not going to win the championship, but have plenty to play for as it will be the final game in Force colours for many of their players.

But equally the Highlanders really need to win to finish the season off in style, and get that three-year plan into a forward gear.

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