HIGHLANDERS 18 WARATAHS 17
Stretchered off ... Pat McCutcheon of the Waratahs suffers a serious knee injury after scoring a try. Photo: Getty Images
WARATAHS coach Michael Foley says poor execution and not lack of effort is what led to the NSW side's second loss from three matches this season.
''Both teams were out on their feet at the end of the game and we put a lot of pressure on them, but there were key times where we weren't able to execute how we would have liked,'' Foley said after last night's loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Rob Horne of the Waratahs is tackled by Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images
''And they're the things we've got to work on. To create the pressure we created, that takes a lot of guts and a lot of character, but we were just down on execution and than meant while we created momentum we weren't able to finish it off.''
The game might well have been sheltered from the torrid Dunedin weather at the roofed Forsyth Barr Stadium but for fans there was no respite from an average game of rugby. Both sides continually kicked away possession from inside there own half.
Ironically, however, it was the boot of Daniel Halangahu that kept the Waratahs in the match. He scored 12 of the Waratahs' 17 points from penalty goals.
Aaron Smith of the Highlanders scores his team's only try. Photo: Getty Images
The Tahs' only try came through a charge-down by breakaway Pat McCutcheon in a match that became more a battle of patience and fitness than skill. Foley commended his team's effort and defended kicking away possession late in the match on several occasions.
''We had the ball inside our 22 a few times late in the game but they had a pretty good wall of defence, and I think a couple of those kicks set up the opportunity for us to have a scrum where we still had an opportunity to win the game,'' Foley said. ''I don't think kicking was the issue - the execution around the set-piece and on attacking plays probably let us down at time. We got momentum a lot of the times without the ball and that probably took its toll late in the game.''
The Highlanders were all-powerful at the breakdown and left the visitors with slow ball, if it all.
Waratahs lose thriller to Highlanders
Waratahs go down by the narrowest margin to the Highlanders in a bruising encounter. Photo: Getty Images
But it wasn't the plethora of Wallabies and All Blacks on the pitch that stood out, but referee Bryce Lawrence who took centre stage. He blew the pea from the whistle in a match that featured almost as many penalties as points on the scoreboard.
The Waratahs could not take a trick from Lawrence, copping seven penalties in the first half and 13 of a total of 22 by the end of the match. Even this scribe's Kiwi counterparts were bewildered by the Dummy's Guide to Rugby Laws rhetoric as he lectured players on both sides at every opportunity. His refereeing made for a stop-start game duller than the weather outside.
Foley refused to pass comment on Lawrence's performance.
''I think referees call it as they see it. There is a real attention to detail at the breakdown at the moment, which makes their lives really difficult. They are almost being compelled to make decisions at times.
'' I think in an attempt to keep the game open, the level of detail in which they are looking to scrutinise can be very, very challenging.
''I don't have any criticism of the referee but there are probably times where things are being seen in the spur of the moment that are very difficult for the referee to determine exactly what has happened, and they are compelled to make a call.
''People are challenging each other in that area more and more and there are some obvious things that need to be penalised and there are some other things that maybe aren't as clear cut. The referee tonight wasn't the factor. The Highlanders were just better at keeping on the pressure at key times.''
In the first half alone, an ill-disciplined and at times unlucky Waratahs outfit were forced to make three times as many tackles as their rivals, with the tally finishing on 75 to 26. Their lineouts were penalised twice and they coughed up the ball at another.
In the end it was the Highlanders' two tries to the Waratahs' one that sealed the match, Aaron Smith and John Hardie doing the honours. Colin Slade took care of kicking duties.
Returned playmaker Berrick Barnes barely saw the ball.
HIGHLANDERS 18 (John Hardie, Aaron Smith tries Colin Slade con 2 pens) bt NSW WARATAHS 17 (Patrick McCutcheon try Daniel Halangahu 4 pens) at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Referee: Bryce Lawrence.