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Thomas Umaga-Jensen scores the Highlanders’ seventh and final try against Moana Pasifika at Mt Smart Stadium.
At Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland: Highlanders 45 (Parkinson scored 8 minutes, Sam Gilbert scored 15 minutes, Hugh Renton scored 25 minutes, Fetuli Paea scored 51 minutes, Moses Dawai scored 64 minutes, Marino Michael-Tu’u scored 67 minutes, Thomas Umaga-Jensen scored 78 minutes; Sam Gilbert scored 5 cons) Pacific Ocean 17 (Solomon Funaki tries 5 min, Levi Aumua tries 22 min; Lincoln McClutchie pen, 2 cons) HT: 19-17
Yellow card: Timoci Tavatavanawai (Moana Pasifika) 70min
All Blacks Ethan de Groot and Folau Fakatava lifted the Highlanders to their third win in a row, but they had to overcome a spirited Moana Pasifika side and a poor first half.
The Highlanders missed 19 tackles in the first period alone and their discipline was subpar for a long time, with lock Pari Pari Parkinson a repeat offender.
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However, De Groot mustered the Moana Pasifika scrum in a very impressive 61st minute, and Fakatava provided the attacking spark from the bench to set up tries for Mosese Dawai and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u in the last quarter – taking the all-important bonus point.
Moana Pasifika showed improvement after their heavy loss to the Hurricanes last week.
Levu Aumua showed his tremendous strength in Moana Pasifika’s midfield, regularly taking two or three defenders to bring him to the ground.
With halfback Ere Enari finding many willing runners close to the ruck, the home side asked the Highlanders many questions on defense with their sheer physicality.
As expected, winger Timoci Tavatavanawai beat the defenders every time he got the ball, while the Highlanders also put themselves under pressure with their lack of discipline.
Despite playing into the wind, Moana Pasifika was unlucky not to head into the sheds leading, but they couldn’t capitalize on a great opportunity just before half-time.
With three tries on the bench, the Highlanders led 19-17 at half-time and they squeezed the Moana Pasifika pack in the second 40 minutes, and Thomas Umaga-Jensen’s superb late try was the icing on the cake.
But they were again dogged by injuries. Big lock and lineout caller Will Tucker went off for an HIA after just 26 minutes and didn’t come back.
Parkinson also left the field in the third quarter, forcing All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell to act as a blocker in his return to action.
The big moment
Highlanders winger Jonah Lowe was sent to the trash after 54 minutes with the score tied at 26-17 and Moana Pasifika was hot in attack but the TMO saw a knock from Ere Enari in the build-up and referee Ben O’Keeffe had to make his decision to wind back . From the ensuing Highlanders scrum, De Groot won another set-piece penalty and the Highlanders got out of jail.
Sean Withy, Hugh Renton, de Groot, Jermaine Ainsley and Aaron Smith were again the Highlanders’ best players, while Fakatava was sharp off the bench. Moana Pasifika was well served by Miracle Failagi, Danny Toala, Tavatavanawai and Aumua. However, De Groot stamped his class and power over the game.
6.5/10. It was willing but messy, and both sets of coaches will have plenty to work on after their assessments. However, the Highlanders will be happy for another strong finish as their bench made a huge impact. Coach Clarke Dermody will be especially pleased with the performance of lock Max Hicks, who replaced Tucker on 26 minutes and grew as the game progressed.
The big picture
The Highlanders have some momentum after three wins in a row, but they face the Hurricanes in Dunedin on Saturday in a litmus test of their progress. Moana Pasifika travels to the Crusaders as their quest for the campaign’s first victory continues.