Written by Max Sharp.
Tony Brown's men were given a grand opportunity, to wildly shift the expectations of the Super Rugby Pacific season's playoffs, having arrived in Auckland with just 4 wins from 14 regular season matches. Scarily, for the first 29 minutes of the match, they were able to do just that with 14 men. Once the Highlanders let the Blues on the scoreboard though, we saw an implosion of the team's cohesion and teamwork, that went from a 6-0 lead to a 6-35 loss at full-time. This was probably a game of two halves to be fair, we'll read through the jersey numbers from 1 through to 23 and analyse how the Highlanders fared in their final match of 2022.
Highlanders Player Ratings
Loosehead Prop - Ethan de Groot (9/10)
This young prop has blossomed into a true workhorse. Props aren't known for high metre counts, de Groot ran 3 metres off 4 carries and made 1 pass, though he made 10/12 tackles and 1 turnover in 49 minutes. Ripped Tu'ungafasi apart in the scrum as well; an event likely never-seen-before. de Groot must start for the All Blacks; he is the only hope against Tadgh Furlong
Hooker - Andrew Makalio (1/10)
Was only on the pitch for 18 minutes. Makalio had made just 2 tackles before his third attempt went into Tom Robinson's head; just one arm was wrapped. The referee ruled it a red card, Makalio was sent off looking embarrassed.
Tighthead Prop - Jermaine Ainsley (7/10)
Completed 13/15 tackles to take his season tally to 101. Ainsley's 2 carries failed to gain metres, though he had a strong ruck presence and was powerful in the scrum. He will be very unlucky not to get an All Black cap.
Lock 4 - Bryn Evans (5/10)
Was not the veteran's best work at all. Though experience is very valuable, Evans couldn't quite match the dynamism of Tom Robinson, making just 5/6 tackles and 3 passes before departing in the 52nd minute without any metres on his stat board. Evans had an average game.
Lock 5 - Josh Dickson (6/10)
Played his heart out in a losing cause, so will likely be called on by the Māori All Blacks. 18 metres from 9 carries, 5 passes and 1 offload were Dickson's methods of getting his team front-foot ball, though he will be disappointed with 13/17 tackles. 1 turnover won too.
Blindside Flanker - Hugh Renton (7/10)
Despite starting and finishing the match, Renton played just 60 minutes, coming off for Apisai until the end of Makalio's card, then again for Frizell. The big 6's 4 metres from 4 carries weren't quite strong enough, but his defence? Excellent work, 13 tackles in total. Renton was one of just two Highlanders forwards not to miss a tackle.
Openside Flanker - Billy Harmon (8/10)
Handed the captaincy in Aaron Smith's absence, Harmon gave a "follow me" performance before being brutally knocked out by a head clash in the 65th minute. 4 metres from 4 carries, 4 passes, 17/19 tackles and 2 turnovers were his effort for the match.
Number 8 - Marino Mikaele-Tu'u (9/10)
Could this be the match that finally gets him the call-up? The number 8's ridiculous form has only got better, with his defence being 9/10 tackles and 3 turnovers. Mikaele-Tu'u was also one of few Highlanders to run forward, with 46 metres, 5 defenders beaten and 1 clean break off 12 carries, while also giving 6 passes. World class.
Halfback - Folau Fakatava (9/10)
The Highlanders did indeed look more well-controlled with Fakatava at 9. His 69 passes and 4 offloads were all carefully thought-out, while he ran 36 metres and beat 1 defender from 4 carries. 10/11 tackles is an immense defensive effort for a halfback too.
First-Five - Marty Banks (3/10)
Began the game with composure. The 33-year-old's 2 penalty goals kept his team in the lead, before the implosion. Banks was targeted by many high balls and couldn't quite step up to them, while 6 passes isn't ideal for a 10 that played 80 minutes.
Left Wing - Mosese Dawai (4/10)
Tried his best with ball-in-hand, running 44 metres and beating 1 defender from 5 carries. Not quite there without the ball though. Dawai did make 5/7 tackles and 2 turnovers, but was found misreading the space at bad times; including when he let a try in.
Second-Five - Scott Gregory (2/10)
I do not intend to sound like a bully, but Gregory had a defensive shocker. Though he made 7 tackles and a turnover, he missed 9 tackles, of the team's 36. Did his best, with 36 metres and 1 defender beaten off 7 carries, but passed just once. Athletes can't always reach peak form, but Gregory's attack couldn't make up for his defence.
Centre - Thomas Umaga-Jensen (7/10)
Behaved resiliently, attempting to stay on despite an injury that saw him replaced by Coombes-Fabling, while Paea moved to 13. Had made 27 metres, and beaten 2 defenders from 8 carries, as well ad 4 tackles, before being substituted. The team missed Umaga-Jensen a lot.
Right Wing - Fetuli Paea (5/10)
Couldn't get into the game as much from 13, but offered 8 decent passes. Paea's 21 metres and 1 defender beaten off 4 carries were in vain, he couldn't get enough ball to make a difference. 9/12 tackles could have been better too.
Fullback - Connor Garden-Bachop (9/10)
Had a never-say-die attitude, similar to that of Scotland's fullback and captain, Stuart Hogg. Gave the counter attack a great crack with 69 metres off 10 carries, while distributing 8 passes. Had been excellent up until throwing a pass into touch in the dying moments.
Reserve Hooker - Leni Apisai (6/10)
On debut against his former team, Apisai worked hard but was outplayed in the rucks. 13/15 tackles and 1 turnover was a good defensive effort, though he did mis-throw one lineout and could have definitely attacked harder than 5 metres off 2 carries.
Reserve Loosehead Prop - Daniel Lienert-Brown (5/10)
Lienert-Brown's single carry was a storming run, with 29 metres, 2 defenders and 1 clean break. Made 1 pass, but was outperformed in both the rucks and scrums. de Groot could have been kept on the pitch longer.
Reserve Tighthead Prop - Saula Ma'u (No rating)
The young man hasn't been able to match Ainsley's level throughout the season, but he will have plenty to take away from 2022. On the note of this game, he played just 18 minutes, which normally isn't enough time on the pitch to rate a prop.
Reserve Lock - Max Hicks (6/10)
Injected some much-needed front-foot ball, with 27 metres off 2 carries, the damage had been done already though. Hicks made 3 passes and 7 tackles, but couldn't quite link up with the rest of the pack.
Reserve Loose Forward - Shannon Frizell (4/10)
Unleashed close to the line with 10 metres and 3 defenders beaten from 6 carries. Frizell's contributions elsewhere were minimal however, 1 tackle from 28 minutes (the Highlanders' second-half possession rate was 45%) just isn't good enough. What will Ian Foster think?
Reserve Halfback - Kayne Hammington (No rating)
On for the last 3 minutes, so won't be rated.
Reserve Outside Back - Liam Coombes-Fabling (4/10)
The number 22 had just a single carry in 47 minutes. While Coombes-Fabling made 1 turnovers, he could have done more than make just 3 tackles. Perhaps lacks the fire to become a world-class winger?
Reserve Utility Back - Denny Solomona (No rating)
It's unfair to rate a back who made just 2 carries and 2 tackles in 25 minutes, so Solomona won't be rated.