INVERCARGILL, New Zealand (AP) — The Highlanders held on in a tight match of tit-for-tat scoring to beat the Western Force 43-35 Sunday and claim its first win of the season in Super Rugby Pacific.
The lead bounced between the teams in the first half and at the start of the second but the Highlanders drew away with three unanswered tries through the middle of the second spell to lead 43-25. The Force then finished strongly with tries in the last two minutes to Sifa Amone and Ollie Callan.
The Highlanders had the hardest start to the season of any team, facing last year’s finalists the Crusaders and Blues in the first two rounds and semifinalists the Chiefs in the third.
Back home at one of their two home grounds, Rugby Park in Invercargill, the Highlanders finally managed to stem the losing streak in the fourth round of the tournament. The win came on Kids Day and the players were swamped by children seeking autographs when the final whistle blew.
“First win. It’s good to get the ball rolling,” Highlanders captain Billy Harmon said. “We’ve had a tough start. It wasn’t the prettiest win but it was a win nonetheless.”
The Force took an early lead with two penalties to Bryce Hegarty before the Highlanders replied and took the lead with the first try of the match to winger Jonah Lowe.
The Force probably should have been awarded a penalty try when Highlanders flyhalf Mitchell Hunt deliberately knocked down a pass between Bayley Kuenzle and Toni Pulu. Banks was shown a yellow card but the referees decided a penalty try was not warranted because enough cover was in place to ensure the try would not be scored.
Hunt made up for his indiscretion with a try in the 40th minute which allowed the Highlanders to take a 15-13 lead to halftime.
The Highlanders passed up a kickable penalty to go for the corner, won the lineout and kept the ball alive until Hunt skipped through a weak tackle to score.
Minutes before the Force had taken the lead with a try to winger Zach Kibirige. Scrumhalf Gareth Simpson chipped over the Highlanders defense from a ruck near the right-hand corner and Kibirige won the race to the ball to score as the match see-sawed before the break.
The back and forth nature of the match continued early in the second half with a try to Tom Horton for the Force, quickly answered by Sam Gilbert who converted his own try to give the Highlanders a 22-18 lead.
Hegarty then scored and converted a try and the Force led 25-22. But Force replacement George Poolman was sin-binned for a tipping tackle and the Highlanders took advantage with a try to Sean Withy which gave them the lead again. Lowe and Renton then scored to make the lead decisive.
A week after beating the defending champion Crusaders, the Fijian Drua came close to picking up another scalp with a strong finish against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane.
The Reds led 24-3 midway through the second half but the Drua rallied strongly with tries to Leone Rotuisolia and Kalaveti Ravouvou. A late penalty and defensive play by Filipo Daugunu allowed the Reds to hang on.
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