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Highlanders coach Glenn Moore says his side paid dearly for two errors in the narrow loss to the Sharks in Durban.
But the coach said there was still plenty to play for in the final two games of the season, and praised the gutsy display of his side.
The 23-15 loss to the Sharks left the Highlanders in 10th position, and ended their faint hopes of making the Super 14 semifinals.
Moore pointed to fullback Israel Dagg dropping a high ball and Mathew Berquist losing the ball in his dead ball area, in the first half, as key errors in what was a close match.
"At this level, it can come down to a couple of critical errors and that was the way it was for us.
"I can't blame the effort of the guys. I thought it was first rate.
"But those critical errors cost us," Moore said.
Certainly, Berquist's dropped ball which was pounced on by Jacques Botes for a try was a howler of an error, but dropped ball was a feature of the match.
"They dropped more than us but I don't know why there was so much ball being dropped.
It wasn't humid or anything like that."
The Highlanders, down 17-15 at the break, had a period on attack at the start of the second spell but could not score, and Moore said that was costly.
"We needed to score then.
"There were opportunities there where we created the hole but we did not see them.
"And at this level, if you create an opportunity, you've got to take it."
He said the side was a lot more aggressive in the breakdown, and defended well.
A lot of the errors came back to inexperience at this level and guys not reacting well when under pressure, which again came with experience, he said.
"But I'm proud of the guys.
We really wanted to attack them and the tries we scored were well executed."
He said the close loss was the unfortunate reality of a ruthless competition, and the Highlanders had experienced plenty of close losses this year, right from the start of the season.
Moore said blindside flanker Adam Thomson was ill throughout the first half with a stomach bug, but continued to play well.
He said the scrum had struggled in the first 20 minutes but they had made a couple of changes and it had adjusted for the rest of the match.
The side travels to Johannesburg today for a match against the Lions next Saturday morning, before ending the season against the Force in Perth.
Despite being out of the play-off race, Moore said the side still has plenty to play for.
"We want to finish as high up the table as possible.
"We have only got a six-day turnaround and are playing at altitude so it is going to be a huge challenge."
The side received no serious injuries in the match and will be boosted by the arrival of prop Chris King, who missed the Sharks match because his wife had a baby girl.
Sharks captain Johann Muller said his side was happy to take the four points but disappointed with the way they played, and their finishing.
He praised his side's scrum.