If the Reds fans entered this match with any sort of confidence it was firmly on their team’s success rate against the Highlanders over recent years, rather than form on the board in 2016. The Reds have won six of the last eight encounters against the Highlanders, but their inability to win a single game in this season curtailed any potential confidence. Despite some key players missing the match through injury, the high flying ‘landers were deserved favorites with many tipping an end to the recent Reds run of close losses.
The Reds produced arguably the best rugby they’ve put together since the salad days of Ewen McKenzie, during their first half of the Highlanders, taking to the changerooms leading 22-6. It looked a little easy for the reigning premiers early with some easy metres, before the Reds were able to grab the early initiative thanks to a Liam Gill try just minutes into the game. The impact of Gill and Hendrick Tui in the pack and then Samu Kerevi and Karmichael Hunt out wide was critical to giving the Reds the edge in delivering their team’s best rugby of the season.
Whilst Lima Sopoaga kicked a penalty soon after Gill’s try a well taken (bordering on fortunate) try to Nick Frisby backing up an Eto Nabuli run from a Kerevi off-load and Reds fans were beginning to have a little hope. It was still early days however and another Sopoaga penalty kept the Highlanders in touch. The margin returned with McIntyre taking a well chosen field goal in the 25th minute to ensure the Reds’ points tally continued to click.
As the Reds were looking to settle into the half time break with a 15-6 lead, that man Kerevi produced another damaging run to charge his way over for a late try, with the McIntyre conversion taking the score to 22-6 at the break.
The home crowd stood to celebrate the performance of the team for that first stanza, but new that this champion Highlanders team could be back. Normally early points is deemed crucial after such a half, and the Reds were able to put another six points in the bank through a couple of McIntyre penalties. These points perhaps did one (or both) of two things. Lulled the Reds into a comfort zone as to their lead, or spurred the Highlanders on further.
Loyal Queensland fans were starting to look as green as the opposition jerseys as Highlander passes were finally sticking and tries being legally awarded. Aaron Smith darted over first with 30 to go. Then Malakai Fekitoa charged over under the posts with less than 13 minutes left before Sopoaga ran the length of the field, following a Reds turnover, to score in the corner and kick the conversion to narrow the gap to just one point with eight minutes to go.
It was a horrid 8 minutes to watch as a Reds fan as they seem to conspire to give away possession at every opportunity. The Highlanders, as they did for most of the match, struggled to get the passes to hand and maintain continuity and in the end the Reds, as players were dropping everywhere, were able to hold on for what was a remarkable win.
The Highlanders now return home to rest up on a bye weekend, whilst the Reds pack the bags and head to South Africa for a flight that should be all the more enjoyable given the win over the 2015 Super Rugby champions.
The Game Changer
In a game so distinctly different across the two halves the only logical answer, in a match that was so illogical, is half time. The Reds seemed to come out prepared to just hold on to their lead rather than replicating their first half performance. The Highlanders just kept throwing everything and it almost paid off.
The G&GR MOTM
Shane Christie and Sopoaga were terrific for the Highlanders. But this will go to a Red, of which there were many candidates. Kerevi had his best game for the Reds in ages, Hunt is best game ever whilst Hendrick Tui and Andrew Ready maintain their 2016 season form. The award, however, must go to Liam Gill whose fingerprints on the result were everywhere to be seen.
Karmichael Hunt was superb and there must be questions as to whether Israel Folau is better served on the wing. Andrew Readdy continues to make his case for squad selection. Kerevi proved some doubters wrong and Nabuli continues to show promise and we all know Gill’s class.
Score & Scorers
Tries: Liam Gill (3′), Nick Frisby (16′), Samu Kerevi (35′)
Conversions: Jake McIntyre (16′, 36′)
Penalties: ( 45′, 51′)
Field Goals: Jake McIntyre (25′)
Tries: Aaron Smith (59′), Malakai Fekitoa (68′), Lima Sopoaga (70′)
Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (60′, 68′, 72′)
Penalties: Lima Sopoaga (7′, 22′)