Wow. After keeping in the game off the tee, the Highlanders' 61-minute comeback that they'd worked so hard for, was taken away at the death. After being down by 6-14, a 20-14 victory looked assured, up until the Waratahs' reserve hooker, Mahe Vailanu, crossed the try line in the 78th minute after several phases of attack. The Highlanders ended up losing by just one point, 20-21.
This frustrating result can't be sugar-coated, the coaches will almost certainly have negativity to get off their own chests. Let's look at the Highlanders' efforts by going through the players from jersey numbers 1 to 23, to see how each player performed.
Highlanders captain, Billy Harmon (pictured in 2022 for Canterbury) was absent from the match due to a family bereavement and his presence proved irreplaceable. Photo: Max Sharp.
HIGHLANDERS PLAYER RATINGS:
Loosehead Prop - Ethan de Groot (7/10)
Workhorse performance despite the losing effort. de Groot had his head stuck into the breakdown and was tireless for 8 carries and 5 passes. de Groot's 61 minutes also saw him complete 10/12 tackles, the third-most of the team.
Hooker - Andrew Makalio (5/10)
Charged at the Waratahs' line every time he had the ball, to cross the gainline in 14 metres from 6 carries. Worked to get 1 offload away and managed 5/6 tackles in a slow game, but the lineout wasn't too flash.
Tighthead Prop - Jermaine Ainsley (6/10)
Much like Makalio, Ainsley will be exhausted from playing such massive minutes. Crossed the gainline for many post-contact metres in his 5 carries, made 3 passes, but will look to improve on his 5/7 tackles next week.
Lock 4 - Fabian Holland (8/10)
Yes, keep him in the starting lineup. The hulking Dutchman stands at 2.04m and 118kg, but is still 20 years old. Holland worked tirelessly for 10 metres off 5 carries, made 3 passes and 13/13 tackles - the joint second-most in his side. Awesome to see him play the full 80.
Lock 5 - Will Tucker (3/10)
His place in the starting lineup has to come into question. Just a single metre off 5 carries, 2 passes and 3/4 tackles aren't the stat sheet you'd want after 55 minutes. Tucker's lineout calling certainly went awry at points, while he didn't have any effects at the ruck clearances.
Blindside Flanker - Shannon Frizell (4/10)
The All Blacks' number 6 hasn't been convincing this season, despite avoiding serious injury. Despite spending 67 minutes on the pitch, he was absent from the breakdown, while his 15 metres off 5 carries didn't generate the same front-foot ball as the tight-five. Frizell's 6 passes were a higher total than his 5 tackles. After an average season, he may have played his way out of a World Cup spot.
Openside Flanker - Sean Withy (7/10)
In the absence of regular captain, Billy Harmon, Withy's time in the 7 jersey was very productive. His 15 metres off 7 carries weren't usually supported but he performed his role in the breakdown strongly and won a crucial turnover in the second half. 13/13 tackles was great to see too.
Number 8 - Hugh Renton (9/10)
If this workhorse was in any other team, the drums for an All Blacks call-up would beat louder and louder. Renton managed a try off a maul and 32 metres off 11 carries. Put on a defensive show with 15/16 tackles and 2 turnovers, so will be very aggrieved by the result.
Halfback - Aaron Smith (8/10)
Put on a nice show of his passing skills while contributing 3 tackles and 1 turnover to the defence. Showed that he's still got it at 34 years old to make a well-timed sniping run and score a try, in a performance he'll no doubt dedicate to his late father.
First Five - Mitch Hunt (3/10)
Playing off 10 more was a nice idea in theory for the team, but failed badly in practice. Hunt may have made 25 passes, but the structure was totally lacking, with wingers almost never supported and then taken to touch. Not only did the attack structure get easily read, but Hunt produced some fairly basic errors, including missing touch twice off the boot.
Left Wing - Scott Gregory (5/10)
In his first start at wing for the season, Gregory just had a run-of-the mill winger performance where a genuine chance wasn't present for any of his 5 carries, they lead to 33 metres run. Didn't defend well for 2/4 tackles and will be gutted to have lacked inside support runners.
Second Five - Sam Gilbert (5/10)
Held things together off the tee and had a decent tackle rate for 5/6, but is far too talented and tall to be used as a battering ram back. Gilbert's 28 metres off 10 carries were in some tight spaces, while his place in the team removed the factor of his distribution; he passed once. Gilbert is the closest replica of Jordie Barrett the fullback, not Jordie Barrett the 12...
Centre - Fetuli Paea (9/10)
As one of those players who benefits from stringing minutes together, Paea gave it his all and was found without any supporting runners, or support at the breakdown. His 9 carries were immense for 55 metres, 1 defender beaten and 1 clean break, while he made 6 passes and 3/3 tackles.
Right Wing - Jonah Lowe (5/10)
Found himself put into touch a few times as Gregory was too. Lowe's 9 carries lead to 41 metres, 6 passes and 5/5 tackles are decent for a winger, but there were a few coach-killer handling errors in his performance including when he stood in at halfback off a ruck.
Fullback - Connor Garden-Bachop (8/10)
While I prefer him at wing, Garden-Bachop played his heart out from 15, for 106 metres, 4 defenders beaten and 1 clean break in his 11 carries. He used his 7 passes in attempt to fix the structure of his team's attack and also completed both of his tackles.
Reserve Hooker - Rhys Marshall (6/10)
While Marshall didn't make any noteworthy contributions aside from a botched lineout, 9 tackles in 29 minutes is certainly some hard work, so he redeems his rating; having not much else to do thanks to the Waratahs' high possession rate.
Reserve Loosehead Prop - Daniel Lienert-Brown (4/10)
Much like Marshall, we saw Lienert-Brown work hard on defence off the bench, for 7/9 tackles in just 19 minutes. The scrum however, fell apart with de Groot and Ainsley's exit from the pitch.
Reserve Tighthead Prop - Saula Ma'u (4/10)
Ma'u's performance was very similar to Lienert-Brown's, although he had a higher tackle percentage with 5/5 tackles completed. Props will always be required to slow opposing ball at the breakdown though and we didn't see this from Ma'u aside from 1 turnover.
Reserve Lock - Pari Pari Parkinson (2/10)
His horror run of injuries have turned him into a gun-shy player at just 26 years old; having previously been the country's most promising lock back in the late 2010's. Didn't get to touch the ball, made just 2 tackles in 19 minutes, before conceding his second yellow card in as many weeks.
Reserve Loose Forward - Marino Mikaele-Tu'u (No rating)
Benching such a talent and then using him for just 13 minutes is a joke. Only got to make 4 tackles so won't be rated.
Reserve Halfback - Folau Fakatava (No rating)
Similarly to Mikaele-Tu'u, Fakatava simply didn't play enough to get a rating. Only got to make 1 pass due to the Waratahs' 70% second-half territory rate.
Reserve Midfielder - Thomas Umaga-Jensen (No rating)
Playing for 24 minutes at 13, having replaced Paea, Umaga-Jensen only got to touch the ball once, for when he made a pass out wide. He can't be rated either.
Reserve Outside Back - Jona Nareki (No rating)
The fact that Nareki, a winger, didn't get any ball in the 26 minutes he played, speaks volumes about his team's lack of attack structure.