Western Force lose heartbreaker against Highlanders in New Zealand, highlights, reaction
The Western Force have been left to lament the one that got away.
After a topsy-turvy game where the lead swapped multiple times in Invercargill, the Highlanders won their first match of the season by sealing a 43-35 victory.
The visitors led 25-22 after 51 minutes when Bryce Hegarty scored, but the playmaker’s forced departure (concussion) saw another swing in momentum as replacement George Poolman was shown a yellow card for a lifting tackle.
The Highlanders took full advantage of the numerical advantage, scoring quickly to take back the lead and then seizing the momentum by scoring another two converted tries in the final 10 minutes to seal the match.
Two late tries denied the home side a bonus-point, and allowed the visitors to take one out of the clash themselves, but Michael Wells was left to rue what might have been.
“You feel like you left points off the board and we didn’t execute ideally,” Wells said.
“I think we let the Highlanders run on top of us and gave away gain line. They carried strong through us and we didn’t hit on the ball, and if you let a team get quick ball, they get lightning quick gain line, it’s very tough to stem that flow.”
The victory would have seen the Force sneak into the top five of the competition and given them the perfect start to a daunting tour, where they will face the Blues and Hurricanes over the next two weeks.
Now, they will head to Queenstown over the next few days, before taking on the Blues at Eden Park next Sunday.
Wells said the tour was important for the squad to come together, with Simon Cron making significant changes to the franchise since replacing Tim Sampson.
“We’re still building connections,” Wells said.
“There were a few guys in round one; we debuted maybe 10 guys and another one today, a couple last week. Again, that’s not an excuse, we need to be better and we need to execute better, that’s what professional footy demands, but at this stage, we’ve got to grind things out and if that’s the team we’ve got to be, so be, we’ve just got to be better.”
The Highlanders, meanwhile, were thrilled to seal their maiden win of the year.
Decimated with injuries, the Hurricanes suffered a blow in the warm-up when All Blacks back-rower Shannon Frizell hurt his groin. It left the home side lacking power and experience in their pack.
But Billy Harmon was chuffed to get across the line after the hardest start to the competition, where they suffered heavy losses to the Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs.
“First win, it’s good to get that, get the ball rolling,” Harmon said.
“We had a tough start. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but it’s a win nonetheless and we keep building from that.”
The Force made a strong start as Hegarty knocked over two early penalties.
But the loss of Tom Robertson, who suffered a concussion after a clash of heads with Jermaine Ainsley, who couldn’t get any lower when he was on his knees, was a significant blow for the visitors.
After a horrendous opening 10 minutes, where the home side gifted possession away, the Highlanders finally managed to hold onto the ball and Aaron Smith’s rapid pass found Jonah Lowe to give them the lead.
The Highlanders soon after lost one of their own as veteran hooker Andrew Makalio put his head in the wrong spot and collided with Force fullback Chase Tiatia’s leg and was forced off.
After Sam Gilbert’s penalty, the momentum then swung in favour of the Force after Mitch Hunt was sent to the sin bin for a deliberate knock-down near his own goal line after a linebreak. Curiously, the Force weren’t rewarded with a penalty try.
Eventually they got over as Zach Kibirige scored from a super chip kick from debutant Gareth Simpson.
But the Force undid their fine work when Hunt came back on and immediately found the tryline.
Much like the Brumbies’ win over Moana Pasifika on Saturday night, both sides were poor in defence and the Force scored through hooker Tom Horton, who was a late call-up for the injured Folau Fainga’a.
The lead changed another two times, before Sean Withy scored to break the game open after Poolman’s yellow card. Lowe’s second and a fine try to Hugh Renton sealed the match, before the Force scored two late tries.