Highlanders hold on for grim victory over Force

Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders during tonight's match against Western Force at Forsyth Barr...
Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders during tonight's match against Western Force at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Winning ugly went to a new level tonight as the Highlanders held on for a grim 7-6 win over the Western Force.

It at least broke a five-game losing slide for the Highlanders but as a spectacle, it was as rough as anything seen since Forsyth Barr Stadium opened in 2011.

Both teams played some terribly poor rugby and made bucketloads of mistakes.

While such low scoring suggests magnificent defence, in truth this was more about the ineptitude and inaccuracy of both attacks.

The Highlanders were just marginally less awful than the Force in that regard.

It was technically a wooden spoon game - 11th playing 12th – but the Highlanders are weirdly now in the eighth and final playoff spot.

They should also have some confidence back, too.

Winning ugly is still winning. There were lots of moments when the Highlanders could have crumbled but they held firm.

Highlights were few and far between in the first half.

In fact, they really were a dreadful 40 minutes.

Both sides made numerous errors and neither could turn the odd flicker of attacking accuracy into anything more than a fleeting promise of delight.

Between reset scrums and a long break while Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot had some replacement studs screwed into his boots, there was little for the crowd to get excited about.

Sure, there was Rhys Patchell showing touches of genuine class on his return to the starting lineup, Highlanders captain Billy Harmon tackling like a man possessed, and Timoci Tavatavanawai lining up a couple of his trademark runs.

There was also Patchell going off clutching an injured shoulder, the Highlanders getting butchered in a 5m attacking scrum, Folau Fakatava kicking out on the full, and some dreadful lineouts.

The Highlanders had promised a return to the basics but the evidence was not in their favour.

A rare scoreless half beckoned until Ben Donaldson kicked a penalty for the Force.

Halftime could not come soon enough.

There was a late glimpse of excitement for home fans when Tavatavanawai went streaking away, chipped ahead, regathered and scored, but play was called back thanks to a toenail in touch.

And that made it three straight halves of scoreless rugby for the Highlanders. Ouch.

Some points – my kingdom for some points in the second half.

Hamish Stewart of the Force is tackled by Timoci Tavatavanawai. Photo: Getty Images
Hamish Stewart of the Force is tackled by Timoci Tavatavanawai. Photo: Getty Images
Fakatava promptly ended the long Highlanders scoring drought when he burrowed over from close range, sending a near-comatose crowd into delirium.

A try! An actual try!

Donaldson then kicked another penalty and, heavens, this was now a veritable extravaganza of scoring.

The Highlanders were clinging to a 7-6 lead as the clock ticked over 60 minutes, and a kind man would say at least the outcome was uncertain.

A more uncharitable sort would suggest the referee needed to call it off.

The Force went close a couple of times but found their own methods to fail.

And still the clock ticked. And still the crowd watched and hoped for something, anything, anyone to deliver some inspiration.

Fifteen minutes to play. Ten. Seven. Five.

More knock-ons. More terrible decision-making. More inexplicably pointless kicking.

The Force hot on attack again; the Force knocking on again.

Call it, sir. Please. Mercy.

Well, at least once young Cameron Millar has kicked the penalty that secures victory for the Highlanders – and the usually accurate sniper pushes it wide to sum up the night.

The Highlanders are now heading to Tonga to play Moana Pasifika. Fingers crossed that will be victory matched with remotely watchable rugby.

Super Rugby

The scores

Highlanders 7

Folau Fakatava try; Cameron Millar con

Force 6

Ben Donaldson 2 pen

Halftime: Force 3-0.