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Highlanders pay price for poor start

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Lynn McConnell     09 Apr 2016     Getty Images

It was the Reds' first win of the season and while they enjoyed a lead at half-time for the first time this year, they had to hold out against a determined Highlanders response which saw three tries scored and two disallowed on a frustrating night for the defending champions.

The Highlanders' response was led by first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga who scored a try and added two conversions and two penalty goals for 15 points in a superb display.

Handling was the issue for the Highlanders, their ball control was below par while they couldn't handle centre Samu Kerevi or, more especially, flanker Liam Gil,l in a dynamic first half which saw them down 6-22.

Gill scored the first try, three minutes into the game after Kerevi twice featured in the lead-up play before Gill got over in the corner.

Then, in the 15th minute, what looked to be a miscued cross-field kick from first five-eighths Jake McIntyre was taken by Kerevi who made something out of nothing by linking with wing Eto Nabuli who took the play forward and found halfback Nick Frisby was available to take the ball and score.

Sopoaga landed a 50m penalty goal in the 22nd minute to go with an earlier goal in the seventh minute, but home first five-eighths Jake McIntyre returned the margin to nine points when snapping over a dropped goal.

Just after the Reds lost lock Rob Simmons with a shoulder injury, fullback Karmichael Hunt ran a Highlanders downfield kick back up field. The ever-present Gill was on hand in support to take play to a midfield maul. McIntyre's pass to Nabuli was knocked down by a Highlanders hand but Nabuli still secured the ball.

He had Kerevi outside and when he received the ball he cut back inside to beat fullback Matt Faddes' tackle to extend the score to 22-6.

The Highlanders missed a golden chance to score when second five-eighths Rob Thompson dropped the ball with the line open after good lead-up work by wing Jack Wilson and halfback Aaron Smith.

More disappointment occurred when skipper and flanker Shane Christie was ruled not to have attempted to get onside after he had passed the ball for wing Patrick Osborne to kick ahead. Christie kept running, and although subsequently put onside he hadn't retreated initially, so his effort in getting up to take the ball and score from the breakdown was denied.

It got worse in the 48th minute when Sopoaga got over only for play to be called back for a neck roll by lock Joe Wheeler on Reds hooker Andrew Ready.

Finally, the try drought was broken when from a lineout penalty option, Wheeler secured the ball and No.8 Liam Square ran blind where halfback Aaron Smith was waiting on the sideline to get over and score.

Fekitoa got over beneath the crossbar after some desperate Highlanders attacking and then from the restart the Reds secured a lineout but lost the ball in back play and it was Fekitoa who knocked a loose ball to Sopoaga who was on the flank and he raced 80m to beat the defence, score in the corner and add the conversion from the sideline to get the score back to 27-28.

Try as they might the Highlanders couldn't shake off the determination of the home defence and it was the Reds who kicked the ball into the stands after the final hooter had gone.

Scorers: Reds 28 (Liam Gill, Nick Frisby, Samu Kerevi tries; Jake McIntyre 2 con, 2 pen, dropped goal) Highlanders 27 (Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Lima Sopoaga tries; Sopoaga 2 con,2 pen; Hayden Parker con). HT: 22-6