9:46am, 13 May 2022
The Highlanders’ competent 61-10 win over the Western Force in Dunedin might just be the performance the southerners needed to really kick their season into gear.
After struggling in the derby matches earlier in the season, recording just a solitary win over Moana Pasifika, the Highlanders found themselves well down the competition ladder heading into the latter half of their campaign. Despite struggling against the Brumbies in their first clash with Australian opposition, the Highlanders have now managed three wins on the trot – over the Reds, Drua and the Force – but it was on Friday night that the team really seemed to click into gear.
Heading into the final two rounds of the regular season, victories over the Waratahs and Rebels would guarantee at least an eighth-place finish – setting them for up a likely quarter-final against the in-form Blues.
On this weekend’s performance alone, the result of that match might not be as cut and dry as it seemed earlier in the season.
“Pretty good performance from our boys and really relieved to get the result,” said Highlanders coach Tony Brown on the Sky Sports post-match broadcast.
“We’ve been trying to find our mojo since the start of the comp and it’s a brutal comp to try to do that … We’re pretty close, I think, to having that (first-choice starting) combination. We’ve just got to keep everyone on the park and fit and who knows what we can do?”
The Highlanders sprung a surprise earlier in the week by naming outside back Sam Gilbert in the No 10 jersey but it was a seemingly left-field decision that paid off in the biggest way with Gilbert’s physicality an asset at first receiver.
With Gilbert at flyhalf, the Highlanders also made just 20 kicks throughout the match (including two from reserve hooker Rhys Marshall late in the piece once the result was already well and truly secured), five fewer than the 25 they were averaging per game prior to Friday night, and 14 fewer than the 34 they made against the Hurricanes earlier in the season.
According to Brown, that wasn’t necessarily a tactical change, however, it was simply a product of the Highlanders getting better bang for their buck with the ball in hand.
“Not so much a change,” he said of the team’s tactics on the night. “Kicking game’s a big part of our game. That’s got to be part of your arsenal nowadays in footy.
“I just felt as though we got the momentum we needed to then be able to shift the ball and I thought the guys in the width kept the ball alive really well which helped us go 15, 16 phases and keep them under pressure. And I just think everyone sort of fronted up and took the bull by the horns.”
That includes rookie No 10 Gilbert, who nailed all eight of his attempts on goal and generally looked cool, calm and collected in the new role.
“Yeah, he was [outstanding],” said Brown, himself a former All Blacks first five-eighth. “I’m pretty stoked for him. To be honest, as a coach, when you put him in there you hope he goes well but he exceeded my expectations and it was an amazing performance tonight.”
Brown wouldn’t be drawn on whether Gilbert would have more opportunities in the jersey moving forward, however, with Mitch Hunt operating as the first-choice No 10 at the franchise this season.
“We’ll make that decision next week,” Brown said. “We’ll see how he goes, how he fronts up next week and how Mitch fronts up as well.”
Gilbert himself acknowledged the support he’d received from Brown and halfback Aaron Smith which ensured he was in the right frame of mind preparing throughout the week.
“Different challenge for me this week,” he said. “It was awesome. The boys were got around me and Browny gave me that confidence during the week and then the forwards got rolling early so it’s a lot easier when you’re going forward.
“When you’ve got guys like Tony Brown and Nuggy (Smith) inside to lean on it really helps. And they gave me that confidence early in the week. They really laid my role out early and going towards the back-end of the week it just meant I could focus on just playing and trying to influence the team how I could best.”
While all and sundry were unsurprisingly impressed with Gilbert’s strong showing from the tee, including commentator and former All Blacks halfback Justin Marshall, the 23-year-old admitted that it was hardly a new responsibility.
“I’ve goal kicked since I was six years old,” he said. “It’s always been something I guess I have in the back pocket. I’ve kicked for club, kicked for [Under] 19s, kicked right through and then it was nice to get an opportunity tonight.”
The Highlanders will play their next match in New South Wales next Sunday where they will take on the Waratahs, who this weekend will be chasing a victory over the Hurricanes on Saturday night.
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