A united Highlanders side turned up to Mount Smart Stadium for one reason, to play for their teammate, Josh Dickson. Dickson is assisting his younger brother Sam in his cancer battle, by raising funds; several of the players played with shaved heads to raise awareness for the cause. The first half of this game was one for the purists, a tight margin with several turnovers. After leading by 19-17 at half-time, the men from the deep south exploded into life and held Moana Pasifika scoreless in the second-half, for a full-time score of 45-17.
Plenty of men worked very hard for the cause in what was a positive game overall. Let's read through the Highlanders from jersey number 1 through to 23, to see how each member of the match-day 23 performed.
HIGHLANDERS PLAYER RATINGS
Highlanders captain, Billy Harmon (pictured in lineout training with Canterbury in 2022) was the top tackler of the game. Photo: Max Sharp.
Loosehead Prop - Ethan de Groot (9/10)
Although de Groot stuck it to those who questioned his fitness in 2022, he hasn't lost any of the uncoachable, raw will to win. The best player on the park, with 11/11 tackles, efficient clear-outs, 8 metres off 5 carries and a demolition of the Moana Pasifika scrum, for 3 scrum penalties in total.
Hooker - Leni Apisai (6/10)
Tackled hard (8/9 total) and looked comfortable calling the set-piece shots. Didn't receive much ball at all with 1 metre off 3 carries but had no notable howlers. Apisai went on to the pitch and did what was asked, he'll likely grow with confidence, still being 26 years old.
Tighthead Prop - Jermaine Ainsley (9/10)
Much like his prop partner, Ainsley smashed the Moana Pasifika scrum, the simple difference in Player of the Match comes from de Groot making more tackles. Ainsley's tackle rate was 7/7, while he ran 8 metres and beat 1 defender from 3 carries. Robbed of an All Black cap.
Lock 4 - Pari Pari Parkinson (7/10)
First couple minutes were a shocker, a silly offside and knock-on featured. Parkinson made up for these lows with the team's first try, while running 21 metres and beating 2 defenders off just 4 carries. Subbed off after 56 minutes, hopefully he isn't injured again, a lack of consistent game time is the clear reason for his hot-and-cold matches.
Lock 5 - Will Tucker (8/10)
Looked the goods for much of the first half, but had to be taken off after 26 minutes for an HIA that was failed. Since that was the context of the performance, Tucker did decently to manage 10 metres off 3 carries, make 3 passes, 1 offload and 6/6 tackles.
Blindside Flanker - Sean Withy (8/10)
Withy was born in 2001, but has already captained Otago. Such leadership potential is now arriving at Super Rugby. A full 80 effort created a total of 36 metres run and 1 defender beaten from 7 carries, while he operated in the lineout for 5 passes. Solid defensive outing for 1 turnover and 12/13 tackles. A 6-2 bench split may be the team's way going forward?
Openside Flanker - Billy Harmon (7/10)
The 28-year-old All Blacks call-up provided the goods by topping the tackle charts for 17/18 and demonstrated strong communication with the officials. Did his thing around the basics for 9 metres off 6 carries and though no turnovers resulted, Harmon had a strong role in slowing ball for the opposition.
Number 8 - Hugh Renton (8/10)
Gave another strong performance over 60 minutes, hopefully reminding Ian Foster that he can't be overlooked. Made strong carries with 22 metres and 1 clean break off 6 carries, while he also beat 1 defender scoring a try. Completed 7/9 tackles.
Halfback - Aaron Smith (8/10)
Entered another record book in style, racking up a total of 350 first-class games based in New Zealand. Took his time off the base of the ruck with solid passing, allowing his team to build confidence in the game. Nothing flashy aside from a turnover, but very effective.
First-Five - Mitch Hunt (7/10)
Is looking less under pressure with Gilbert responsible for the goal-kicking and did well organising strike plays in the second half. Hunt could have passed more, but had an otherwise solid stat sheet of 28 metres, 2 defenders beaten, 6 carries and 3/4 tackles.
Left Wing - Jonah Lowe (7/10)
Delivered a decent kicking game to provide some difference and ran 54 metres off just 6 carries. Made 4 passes, more than his fullback and was the only starting back not to miss a tackle, completing 7/7 and winning 1 turnover. Provided a few laughs when his yellow card was overturned.
Second-Five - Thomas Umaga-Jensen (5/10)
Hot-and-cold this one. Had little involvement with the first half and made just 2/6 tackles, but got a reprieve in the second 40. Umaga-Jensen managed to get his payback with 60 metres, 3 defenders beaten, 1 clean break and 6 carries, as well as the final try of the game.
Centre - Fetuli Paea (6/10)
Similarly to Umaga-Jensen, Paea definitely grew into the game. Was given tighter channels to carry into, with 1 try, 32 metres and 1 defender beaten off 6 carries. 6 passes was the third-highest of his team and though 1 turnover and 9 tackles does look good, missing 6 tackles does have to be examined.
Right Wing - Mosese Dawai (3/10)
Slotted in late for an injured Connor Garden-Bachop and took a pasting from hard runners, making just 3/8 tackles. Though he scored a try later in the game, 17 metres off just 3 carries isn't a winger's dream day. Definitely didn't get enough ball.
Fullback - Sam Gilbert (6/10)
Kicked 5 from 7 off the tee to become the first player to cross the 50-point tally for the season in what was a solid performance, aside from a terrible tackle rate of 1/5. Made strong tactical kicks and didn't put a foot wrong on attack with 32 metres, 2 defenders beaten and 1 clean break off just 3 carries.
Reserve Hooker - Andrew Makalio (6/10)
Hit the rucks with impact and definitely made the Highlanders' access to front-foot ball much easier as he had a field day with the Moana Pasifika reserves. Won 7 lineouts in total, contributing nice set-piece accuracy.
Reserve Loosehead Prop - Daniel Lienert-Brown (No rating)
With the game opening up much more in the last 20, Lienert-Brown didn't need to do much so won't be rated.
Reserve Tighthead Prop - Saula Ma'u (No rating)
On for Ainsley with just 13 minutes to go so won't be rated.
Reserve Lock - Max Hicks (8/10)
Lock is definitely the best position for the 112kg Rosmini College alumni, who thrived off strong lineout throws to make 5 passes. Did the good stuff in tight spaces for 10 metres off 4 carries and won 1 turnover, while superbly guarding fringes of the breakdown with 9 tackles.
Reserve Utility Forward - Shannon Frizell (No rating)
Playing in the unfamiliar position of lock, Frizell came on for Parkinson with 23 to go. Nothing of note from this match, but this short shift will definitely add to Ian Foster's high valuation of selecting Frizell.
Reserve Halfback - Folau Fakatava (7/10)
At this point, it's like the Highlanders are subbing Aaron Smith off, for a clone of himself. Fakatava added a lot of tempo and executed the momentum Smith built, and provided the perfect materials to result in the final score.
Reserve First-Five - Cam Millar (No rating)
Played just 10 minutes at the end so won't be rated.
Reserve Loose Forward - Marino Mikaele-Tu'u (9/10)
He normally plays at number 8 and indeed played there, but considering he wore jersey number 23 and played like a back, you could be forgiven for thinking he's a centre. After missing 4 games due to injury, he didn't skip a beat, with 1 try, 23 metres, 3 defenders beaten, 1 clean break, 5 carries, 3 passes, 1 offload and 1 turnover won in just 20 minutes. Monster.