A moment of madness which earned Highlanders No.10 Sam Gilbert a red card against the Waratahs has cost his side dearly and the effects may resonate all the way to his team’s probable quarter-final against the Blues at Eden Park in a fortnight.
Gilbert, a wing who has made a superb transition to first-five for the Highlanders following Mitch Hunt’s recent concussion issues, was shown a red card by referee Nic Berry after 29 minutes in Dunedin for an illegal cleanout on Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper.
Gilbert lifted Hooper above the horizontal, the Wallabies player landing on his neck and shoulder area and leaving the match officials with little option, during the Waratahs’ 32-20 victory.
“There’s no mitigation,” Berry said, before sending Gilbert off.
In another twist, Waratahs prop Paddy Ryan was sinbinned after 50 minutes for a cleanout on Highlanders lock Josh Dickson in which Ryan clashed heads with Dickson, came off worst, and was given a yellow card for his efforts.
It evened the odds slightly but while the Highlanders fought back to a four-point deficit, the Waratahs finished with more composure and attacking threat.
A win for the Highlanders would have virtually guaranteed them eighth place with one match left and therefore a quarter-final against the Blues, the No.1 team in the competition.
So Gilbert’s indiscretion will be doubly irritating for coach Tony Brown. While Gilbert was replaced after 20 minutes by Marty Banks, as the law now allows in Super Rugby, he is likely to be banned for at least two weeks for the offence.
As usual, openside flanker Hooper was a pest at the breakdown but didn’t deserve the treatment he received from Gilbert and predictably capitalised before the half was out, running in and fending off fullback Connor Garden-Bachop from 22m out after wing Mark Nawaqanitawase and No8 Will Harris had responded to Josh Dickson’s try after only two minutes.
At 19-7 down at halftime and the Highlanders struggling with their discipline and defence in the middle of the park, the omens were not good for the home side, who had looked in control during the opening quarter.
There was a bit on this match for the Waratahs, too, as they began the match in seventh place and undoubtedly eager to avoid a trip to Christchurch to play the Crusaders in their quarter-final.
Their win, their first against the Highlanders in Dunedin in 14 years, shifted them to sixth above the Reds and on a collision course with the Brumbies in Canberra instead.
Banks’ first act was to kick a penalty from a handy angle and distance to narrow the gap 19-10.
He failed to kick the conversion for Scott Gregory’s try in the left corner as the Highlanders re-established themselves after their first-half shock, but his calm presence on the field was significant for the home side.
However, the penalties kept coming for the Waratahs down the stretch as their replacements, including Kiwi-born loose forward Charlie Gamble, added impetus. At 19-15 they won a penalty on the 40m line but kicked for touch and promptly lost the lineout.
They received another closer to the posts and Tane Edmed made no mistake with the kick.
The first-five kicked one more to push his side out to a 10-point advantage which wasn’t a comfortable one for the visitors until he went over for a try which he converted with three minutes left.
Waratahs 32 (Will Harris, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Michael Hooper, Tane Edmed tries; Edmed 3 cons, 2 pens)
Highlanders 20 (Josh Dickson, Scott Gregory, Liam Coombes-Fabling tries; Sam Gilbert con; Marty Banks pen)