This article originally appeared on stuff.co.nz and is reproduced with permission
The Highlanders have kept their playoff hopes alive with a come-from-behind victory against a fired-up Fijian Drua side in Fiji – and they needed another huge performance from No.8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and significant impact from the bench to get the job done.
They trailed for an hour of the game in Suva as the Drua capitalised on their errors, and it took a maul try from replacement hooker Rhys Marshall to secure a gruelling 27-24 win.
Marshall provided much-needed composure from the bench, while replacement halfback Folau Fakatava was excellent in the final 15 minutes as the Highlanders went deep into their energy reserves for the win.
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However, they were particularly indebted to Mikaele-Tu’u, who is standing up in a struggling side and putting his name in front of the All Blacks selectors every time he plays.
Despite Drua boss Brian Thorburn expressing concern about an underwhelming crowd earlier in the week, ANZ Stadium was packed on sunny Saturday afternoon in Suva, creating an electric atmosphere for the Drua’s first game on home soil.
The home fans exploded after just two minutes when the Drua skinned the Highlanders down the left edge to set up a try for halfback Frank Lomani.
Brilliant Drua No.11 Vinaya Habosi had a field day, constantly exposing Highlanders opposite Sam Gilbert, while the Highlanders’ expected scrum dominance failed to materialise.
In warm and humid conditions, some of the Highlanders’ big men also struggled with the pace of the game, and No.8 Mikaele-Tu’u was left to fight a lone battle with some typically strong carries.
The Highlanders also struggled under the high ball, and their poor opening 40 minutes was summed up by All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith knocking on at the base of scrum just before halftime.
In the 65th minute, the Highlanders were also marched back an extra 10 metres after referee Brendon Pickerill lost patience with excessive backchat from Smith – and the captain was subsequently replaced by Fakatava.
With their scrum unable to budge the much-improved set-piece, the Highlanders looked bereft of attacking ideas, and even the in-form Thomas Umaga-Jensen had a forgettable game in the midfield.
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Connor Garden-Bachop offered the occasional hint of some spark from fullback, but he was also guilty of coughing up possession in the face of some aggressive defence.
The slippery ball caused major issues for the Highlanders’ handling, preventing them from building concerted pressure.
However, credit must go to the Drua who again displayed their huge physicality, and the Highlanders will be delighted to get a win in a venue where others will struggle in the coming years.
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