That was the case on Saturday night when they humbled a Bulls team which had started the weekend as Super Rugby’s competition front-runners but ended it with a 16-11 loss. They will be re-evaluating their form ahead of this weekend’s game against the Chiefs.
By Nathan Burdon
The Highlanders are back on track after successive losses.
Coach Jamie Joseph talked before the season about the need for his team to ride through the tough times.
No team will go through a long campaign like this year’s competition without a flat patch at some stage.
The teams who are still playing after the regular season will be the ones who can bounce back and avoid those patches turning into slumps.
For 40 minutes at Dunedin Stadium the Highlanders looked very much like a team in the depths of a slump.
They couldn’t wrestle their way into the opposition half, the lineout was a disaster and the ball they had was being shovelled from one side of the field to the other with little impact on the Bulls’ defence, which looked as daunting as Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
In the end it was more like Ali’s Rope-a-dope.
While it looked like all the Highlanders were doing was tiring themselves out, they believed in a game plan designed to move the big South African pack around, to ensure their big hooves would be weighted down over the final 20 minutes.
The lineout aside, the Highlanders coaching staff were pretty happy with the first half.
All the Highlanders needed to do was keeping doing what they’d done, and make sure they capitalised when the opportunity came.
They had to wait an hour, but the chance eventually arrived.
With the Bulls finally conceding a player to the sin bin for their slow playing tactics, quick passing to the left had them stretched in the corner and it took a Akona Ndungane hand to deflect what might have been the final pass.
Still, the Highlanders were in the right area and soon after Jarrad Hoeata crashed his way over close to the ruck.
He believed he had cut the line with the ball but television official Matthew Muir wasn’t convinced.
A minute later, after a five-metre scrum on the Bulls’ line, Muir wasn’t required as Hoeata put an exclamation point on a big performance with what would be the game-winning try.
The Bulls scored through replacement hooker Willem Wepener to put themselves into contention, but there was some stout defence from the Highlanders in the closing stages of the game.
Call it desire.
This wasn’t a perfect performance. The lineout, with four first-half throws lost, needs some tweaking, but it was always going to get a stern examination by the big Bulls leapers.
There was some confusion on the sideline with a second-half replacement which could have had an effect.
The Highlanders had planned to pull Nick Crosswell and replace him with Hoani Macdonald, but the message got scrambled and Adam Thomson’s number was called.
Thomson, quite rightly, refused to leave the field and eventually the situation was resolved.
The Highlanders made excellent profit off the bench, with Andrew Hore, Macdonald and Scott Fuglistaller all having an impact off the pine.
Hoeata, unwanted by the new All Black management, was massive throughout but perhaps the biggest plaudits have to go to Southland’s Tim Boys who was all over the paddock and all over Morne Steyn, as well as lasting a lot more than his limited playing time this season should have allowed.
Given the circumstances, with the Highlanders playing to keep their season alive, Joseph rated it as one of the best wins of his coaching career with the team.
The Highlanders head to Auckland on Saturday to take on the Blues.
Many will chalk it up as an automatic, but this competition doesn’t play that way.
The Highlanders weren’t great against the Bulls, but they were good enough.
Their most important job over the next few weeks is to keep winning, but it would be nice to see them put a team away.
They are capable of doing that against the Blues.