The St.George Queensland Reds have fallen 40-19 to the Highlanders in the opening round of the Harvey Norman Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition.
The hosts scored six tries to three in a polished display at Forsyth Barr Stadium, with Reds winger Suliasi Vunivalu crossing for a pair of tries in his return from injury.
Wests playmaker Isaac Henry made his Reds and Super Rugby debut, becoming Queensland player #1363.
Head coach Brad Thorn said: “We were probably in it until the 60-minute mark, 26-12, and as good teams do the Highlanders pulled away.
“We had some errors, and we had some opportunities as well, we didn’t take them, the Highlanders did.
“The guys fought until the end. We came here to get a job done and I think there was opportunity in the game to do that, but we didn’t execute and we lacked a little bit of discipline around our penalties, off-side, stuff like that.
“The Highlanders did well, their kicking game kept us down in our 22 and built up pressure, hat’s off to them.
“It’s good experience for us going into the Crusaders. They’ve been playing outstanding footy for years now, so they’re a huge task for us.”
An early Queensland error saw the hosts open the scoring in the first minute, inside centre Scott Gregory crashing over out wide.
In his starting debut, 19-year-old Kalani Thomas hit back quickly for the Reds, the scrumhalf fooling the defence from close range with a show and go to score the first try of his Super Rugby career. James O’Connor converted to even the scores at 7-all after five-minutes of play.
After a glut of possession inside the Reds 22, the Highlanders were next to score through hooker Ash Dixon. Mitch Hunt added his second conversion of the night to open up a 14-7 lead for the home side.
The home side continued to dominate possession and field position, with Sio Tomkinson soon crossing for their third try, as Queensland headed to the sheds trailing 21-7.
Vunivalu gave the Reds the perfect start to the second stanza, the winger flying high above the defence to snatch a Bryce Hegarty bomb and score Queensland’s second try of the night. Hegarty missed the tough conversion chance from the sideline as the Reds trailed 21-12.
The Highlanders again hit back quickly, Dixon crossing for his second try off the back of a strong rolling maul to give his side a 26-12 lead at the 50-minute mark.
A pair of five-pointers to Liam Coltman and Ngatungane Punivai in the final ten-minutes sealed the win for the Highlanders, before a late consolation try to Vunivalu, who charged onto another Hegarty kick, made the final score 40-17.
Queensland return to Suncorp Stadium this weekend to take on Super Rugby Aotearoa champions the Crusaders on Saturday 22 May at 7:45pm. Tickets available via https://bit.ly/3uxn3oT.