Rugby: Highlanders learning from tight games

Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith scores a try during his team's round three Super 15 match...
Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith scores a try during his team's round three Super 15 match against the Waratahs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday night. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Learning from pressure situations is aiding the Highlanders, coach Jamie Joseph believes.

The Highlanders stayed top of the New Zealand conference after a nail-biting 18-17 win over the Waratahs on Saturday night.

The three wins chalked up by the side at the start of the season have all been close, and Joseph felt his team was getting smarter when games were tight.

"In tight games, the Highlanders this year have shown a bit of nous, as well as a bit of ticker," Joseph said.

"We have played against some quality sides, and all of our games have gone down to last minute. It's not good for the heart but the players are obviously taking the lessons from the pressure games and applying it to the following week."

It is the second season in a row the Highlanders have opened their campaign with three straight wins.

If they beat the Hurricanes in Wellington this weekend, they will match their record of four, achieved in 1999 and 2000.

The Highlanders were far from perfect on Saturday night, but held on against a tenacious Waratahs team.

"We got ourselves into the game, then out of the game, and then got back into it. So the pleasing thing was we got away with the points. I thought the Waratahs played a hell of a game. They were physical against us and and could have won it.

"I do not think the opposition let us play 100%. This team will give 100% but there are another 15 guys out there who are trying hard to not let us play like that."

The Highlanders looked spent at times and Joseph admitted some of his players were not training much during the week, taking time to recover from the rigours of the 80 minutes on Saturday.

He needed to study the workload of players and how far away injured players were from full fitness.

First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga was forced off the field midway through the first half and has popped his AC joint in his shoulder, and will be out for up to a month.

Colin Slade moved into first five-eighth and looked well short of full match fitness after a lengthy spell out with injury.

He did some good things but lacks match sharpness. With Chris Noakes struggling with an ankle injury, the pivot position is proving a headache.

The game ended on a comical note when replacement halfback Jimmy Cowan tried to end the game by kicking it out, only to slice it off his boot, sending it to replacement winger Buxton Popoali'i, before it was eventually run into touch.

Next up for the Highlanders is a trip to the capital for a match against the rejuvenated Hurricanes, who thumped the Force 46-19 in Perth.

The match will have added motivation for at least half a dozen Highlanders who have links to the Wellington-based side.

"The fact we have a few Hurricane franchise players always means a little bit added," Joseph said.

"But that is not going to win the game. It will come down to performance . . . they are on top of their game and they have a lot of points to prove.

"They are a very young team that is playing with a lot of passion. Playing a bit like us really."

The other big story of the weekend was rookie first five Gareth Anscombe, who scored all his team's points as the Blues beat the Bulls 29-23 in Pretoria.

The Brumbies escaped with a 24-23 win over the Cheetahs in Canberra, while the Sharks beat the Lions 32-20 in Durban.


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