Even the staunchest of Southlanders couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
All Blacks greats Justin Marshall and Jeff Wilson agreed the Western Force were very hard done by in not being awarded a penalty try in their 43-35 loss to the Highlanders in Invercargill on Sunday.
Highlanders No.10 Mitch Hunt was yellow carded by referee Angus Mabey for not being in a realistic position to catch an attempted intercept as Force centre Bayley Kuenzle tried to pass to Toni Pulu with the try-line beckoning.
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But the punishment should have been harsher, according to both Marshall and Wilson, as Mabey and TMO Glenn Newman decided that the Highlanders defenders would have had a realistic opportunity to prevent a try.
“This could not be any clearer if you ask me,” Marshall said on Stan Sport’s coverage.
“I can’t agree with that. I agree with the yellow card but I don’t agree with the fact that there was enough cover. The Force had Gareth Simpson on the inside.
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“All that means is that Pulu, even if he was tackled by (Highlanders fullback Sam) Gilbert, all he had to do was pop a pass.”
Added Highlanders great Wilson: “There was plenty of support there so they’ve (Highlanders) been very, very fortunate.”
The Force still had a penalty to play with but they were unable to breach the Highlanders defence with their next wave of attack.
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It was a costly call against the Force, who put in a typically committed effort but dropped to a 2-2 record.
The desperate Highlanders were able to pull away in the second half for their first win of the season under new coach Clarke Dermody.
English imports Gareth Simpson and Zach Kibirige were impressive for the Force, with halfback Simpson gifting winger Kibirige a try with a lovely deft kick.
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 semi-finalists the Chiefs in the third.
Back home at one of their two home grounds, Rugby Park, 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.
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.
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 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 sinbinned for a tipping tackle and the Highlanders took advantage with a try to Sean Withy which gave them the lead again.
Lowe and Hugh Renton then scored to make the lead decisive.
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