Cape Town – The Highlanders consolidated their spot among the tournament’s frontrunners with a 27-3 win over the Rebels in Melbourne on Saturday.
The champions outscored their hosts three tries to none in what was a one-sided affair and the victory moves them into second place in the New Zealand Conference with 18 points from five matches.
The Highlanders led 13-0 at half-time but the gap really should have been much larger as the Rebels were forced to do a lot of defending.
The Rebels, who beat the Western Force, Reds and Sunwolves but lost against the Bulls in Pretoria in their previous matches, once again struggled against stronger opposition and they offered little on attack.
After a scrappy beginning, in which both sides wasted opportunities to score points, the Highlanders took the lead via a Lima Sopoaga penalty in the 21st minute.
Shortly afterwards, they extended the lead when Rob Thompson pounced on a mistake in the Rebels defence. This was after Aaron Smith launched a box kick which Jonah Placid failed to gather. Thompson booted the ball ahead and beat Dom Shipperley in a sprint before diving on the ball behind the Rebels’ try-line.
Sopoaga added the extras and slotted another penalty which put more daylight between his side and their hosts at the break.
The second half brought a greater return for the Highlanders’ attacking endeavour but their execution was still not up to its usual high standards.
Jack Debreczeni added the home side’s only points via the kicking tee in the 46th minute and, ten minutes later, Thompson turned provider when he again beat the Rebels cover defence to a bouncing ball inside their 22.
The Highlanders number 12 kicked the ball ahead again and this time Jack Wilson, on debut, dived onto the ball to register his side’s second try.
With the game heading in to its final quarter, the Rebels tried to launch more attacks but poor decision-making from their half-backs and a solid defensive effort from the champions kept them in check.
The Highlanders sealed the win and secured a crucial bonus-point when Patrick Osborne intercepted a wayward Debreczeni pass inside his 22 and raced the length of the field before crossing in the left-hand corner.
The rest of the match petered out but the Highlanders knew their job was done and kept the Rebels out with a solid defensive effort.
Tries: Thompson, Wilson, Osborne
Conversions: Sopoaga (3)
Penalties: Sopoaga (2)
15 Jonah Placid, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timpani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Reece Hodge
15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery