Force debutant shines in a hard-fought loss to Highlanders

The Western Force put on a classy display of rugby as they went down to the Highlanders by eight points in an arm wrestle of a match to start their tour across the Tasman.

It was an overcast afternoon in Invercargill as the Force looked to secure their third win of the 2023 campaign as they displayed their best brand of attacking rugby yet this season in the 43-35 encounter.

Former Worcester Warrior Gareth Simpson put on a team-best performance during his debut game in Force colours, solidifying himself as a dangerous asset for his side at the halfback position.

The Force had a number of changes to their front pack early in the encounter with Folau Fainga’a ruled out prior to the game, and Angus Wanger was injected off the bench after five minutes replacing Tom Robertson, who went off with a head knock.

Western Force secured possession early and went on attack, taking territory with ease and looking dangerous with the ball in hand, leading to an early three points from Bryce Hegarty.

Again the Force continued to attack, playing a superb brand of running rugby, putting the Highlanders under real pressure leading to another three points from Hegarty.

The Highlanders’ response was aggressive as both sides opted to use the boot in the first quarter of the game, taking a while to settle into their structures.

The next few plays went the Highlanders way as the score settled to 10-6 margin heading towards halftime.

Backrowers Ollie Callan and Michael Wells were the key performers to start the game defending well and giving the Force possession through multiple pilfers while Hamish Stewart was a key performer in the backline.

After a solid amount of consolidated pressure, debutant Simpson showed a bit of magic to give the Force back the lead, chipping the ball over the defence and into the hands of Zach Kibirige to head over for the side’s first try.

The Highlanders were able to respond on the bell of halftime scoring late to finish the first half with a two-point lead.

There was a lot to like about the Force’s game during the first half with Simpson being the key standout for the men in black in gold.

Gareth Simpson Force debut vs Highlanders

The Force pounced into the second half and returned to their clinical style of attacking rugby setting themselves up in a dangerous position to score.

It wasn’t long before Hooker Tom Horton retook the lead for his side, diving over the try line on the blindside of a perfectly executed rolling maul, putting the score at 15-18.

The lead continued to ebb and flow as the Highlanders responded with a try of their own, followed quickly by a try from Bryce Hegarty to set the game up for an epic finish with the teams separated by three points. (22-25)

Despite Bayley Kuenzle's heroics making a fantastic tackle on the line for the defensive play of the game, the Highlanders retook the lead as the Force went down to 14 men during the remaining 20 minutes.

Three tries followed for the opposition drawing out the lead to a score that didn’t reflect what was an impressive performance from both sides.

In a show of class, the Force played right down to the wire and took back two quick tries through two local products in Ollie Callan and Siosifa Amone who both finished strong in what was an exciting round four clash of Super Rugby Pacific.

Scorers Highlanders 43 Tries: Jonah Lowe 2, Mitch Hunt, Sam Gilbert, Sean Withy, Hugh Renton Conversion: Sam Gilbert 5 Penalties: Sam Gilbert

Western Force 35 Tries: Zach Kibirige, Tom Horton, Bryce Hegarty, Siosifa Amone, Ollie Callan Conversions: Bryce Hegarty, Bayley Kuenzle Penalties: Bryce Hegarty 2