The St.George Queensland Reds have gone down 40-17 to the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday night.
It was the Reds’ final Super Rugby encounter for the 2017 season, but Head Coach Nick Stiles’ named a match-day 23 with an eye on the 2018 season, with 10 players under 21 in the side.
Caleb Timu made his run-on debut and scored the Reds’ final try while Jayden Ngamanu and Reece Hewat both earned their Super Rugby debuts from the bench.
Timu, Izack Rodda and Alex Mafi all crossed for their first Super Rugby tries, as the Highlanders outscored the Reds six tries to three.
Head Coach Nick Stiles said: “It’s not how we wanted to end our season. They play with some serious intensity and we struggled with that in the early stages of the game.
“In saying that, the fight from the team to keep working hard throughout the 80 minutes was a credit to them. We just need to maintain that intensity for 80 minutes every week.
“It’s been a tough season, but the green shoots of growth are there and the young guys in our squad have had a taste of Super Rugby now so I’m looking forward to seeing what strides we make ahead of next season.”
The Highlanders swung the ball wide early and Waisake Naholo scored out wide to give the home side the lead.
Five minutes later, Highlanders flanker James Lentjes went over to extend the lead to 14 points after Lima Sopoaga’s successful conversion.
After a frenetic start the Reds took control of the match and were able to get themselves into attacking field position but the home side scrambled well in defence.
With a scrum five out from the Reds line, Highlanders scrumhalf Kayne Hammington sniped to cross for the third try of the match.
As half time approached, the Reds looked ominous before George Smith turned down a penalty opportunity and played the ball quickly to set up Rodda’s first Super Rugby try.
Having replaced the injured Karmichael Hunt early in the match, Hamish Stewart booted the ball into touch to send the sides into half time with the Reds trailing 21-5.
A charge down early in the second half resulted in Highlanders winger Tevita Li scoring out wide, before the home side were awarded a penalty try that handed them a 28-point lead.
Gifted a penalty right in front, the Reds turned it down and were rewarded when Alex Mafi dotted down after a strong rolling maul play.
With 15 minutes remaining, Highlanders replacement hooker Ash Dixon burrowed his way over, 40-10.
Off the restart, the Reds went on the attack and Cooper fired out a cut-out pass to Izaia Perese who showed strength to stay in field and deliver a deft offload to Caleb Timu. The blindside flanker dotted down for the final try of the match.
The Highlanders looked likely to score late in the match but the Reds showed resilience in defence to hold out the home side in the dying stages.
St.George Queensland Reds 17 (Izack Rodda, Alex Mafi, Caleb Timu tries; Cooper 1 con) defeated by The Highlanders 40 (Waisake Naholo, James Lentjes, Kayne Hammington, Tevita Li, Ash Dixon tries; 1 pen try; Sopoaga 4 cons) at Forsyth Bar Stadium, Dunedin, on Friday 14 July, 2017.