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Highlanders put up a good fight in Newcastle

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waratahs.com.au     15 Feb 2014     Getty Images

NSW coach Michael Cheika described it as a good hit-out. “It was exactly what we needed, hard at the breakdown, there was some good and bad but, all in all, I’m happy with the physicality and attention to detail at the ruck.”

Running with the breeze in the first half, the Highlanders kicked off. It was a scrappy start with the two teams swapping penalties inside the first two minutes.

The Tahs struggled to get out of their own half early on and another penalty saw the visitors open the scoring, flyhalf Lima Sopoaga on target to lead 3-0.

It took the Waratahs nine minutes to finally find some rhythm and they looked like charging over until ball security let them down.

A rib-rattling tackle from centre Rob Horne produced turnover and put the Waratahs on the attack inside the opposition’s 40 but handling cost them again.

Fullback Israel Folau came close to breaking the line but it was winger Peter Betham who crossed for the Tahs’ first points.

It started from a scrum 15 metres out, two rucks and slick hands by the backline put Betham into space 10 metres out and from there he was unstoppable.

With a boost to their confidence, NSW lifted and this time it was the other winger Alofa Alofa’s turn to impress the coach. Showing his dazzling footwork, he beat close to five players, taking the ball 40 metres downfield before off-loading and it was only great defence by the Highlanders that saved another five-pointer.

“For the second week in a row, he’s delivered,” enthused Cheika.

The Highlanders regained the lead with another penalty from the boot of Sopoaga but their advantage was short-lived.

The Waratahs regained possession from the restart, taking the ball inside the opposition’s 22 and this time NSW controlled the ensuing rucks and clever ball play down the short side gave the Tahs a two man overlap. Kurtley Beale hit flanker Michael Hooper with the perfect pass for the flanker to dot down.

Scrumhalf Brendan McKibbin’s conversion had the Waratahs leading 12-6 with seven minutes of the first half remaining.

But the Highlander weren’t about to put up the white flag. All Black Aaron Smith poached a ball from the Waratahs’ side of the ruck to send Hayden Parker on a 30 metre dash to score under the posts. The conversion gave the Highlanders a one-point lead 13-12.

Beale almost snatched the lead back in the final minute of the first half but his pass went astray five metres from Otago’s line, for the Highlanders to lead by the barest of margins at half-time.

The visitors had the better of the second half’s opening stanza, pressuring the Tahs into a number of errors. It might have been just a trial but the teams were playing for keeps and to prove it, big Will Skelton had a minor scuffle with the opposition but it didn’t take the shine off his performance.

It took the Waratahs close to 10 minutes to get their act together in the second 40 and when they did Cam Crawford, returning from shoulder surgery, was unlucky not to give NSW the lead when he was bundled into touch along with the corner post.

“He’ll definitely play a lot of football this year, he’s got to learn to play for 80 minutes,” said the coach.

To read about the rest of the Investec Super Rugby trial match, visit the Waratahs.