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Highlanders beat Reds 40-19 in Super Rugby trans-Tasman

DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — Captain Ash Dixon scored two tries as New Zealand’s Highlanders beat the Queensland Reds 40-19 on Friday in the first match of a new Australia-New Zealand Super Rugby tournament.

The home match for the Dunedin-based Highlanders was also the first international Super Rugby match since border closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic shut down the full, five-nation tournament in March 2020.

In the past two seasons Australia and New Zealand both have had domestic tournaments among their five Super Rugby teams. The establishment last month of a “travel bubble” between Australia and New Zealand, which are both largely free of COVID-19, made a combined 10-team tournament possible for the first time.

Friday’s match offered the first chance to assess the comparative strength of the Australian and New Zealand teams. It pitted the Reds, who only six days ago won the Australian tournament, against the Highlanders, who finished fourth in New Zealand’s five-team competition.

The Highlanders scored the first try of the new tournament through winger Scott Gregory after only 35 seconds.

The Reds replied within five minutes with a try on debut to scrumhalf Kalani Thomas, showing an ability to retain possession through several phases.

But the Highlanders pinned the Reds inside their territory for most of the rest of the half. The opening try resulted from a muffed exit by the Reds and poor exits became an Achilles heel for the Reds for the remainder of the match.

The Reds attempted to use recoverable kicks from inside their own 22 and, with no supporting kick-chase, the Highlanders were able to pick the kicks off and stay on attack. The Highlanders kick far more effectively in offense, twice forcing the Reds to carry the ball back over their goal-line in the first half.

A heavy territorial advantage brought the Highlanders two more converted tries by halftime, when they led 21-7.

Dixon had his first in the 27th minute, diving over after a sniping run from a scrum by scrumhalf Smith. Winger Sio Tomkinson then was the beneficiary of a long pass from Smith which saw his score untouched, outside the compact Reds defense.

The Reds lost flyhalf James O’Connor to a head knock late in the first half. They were still able to start the second half strongly with a brilliant try to replacement winger Suliasi Vunivalu. Bryce Hegarty, stepping into the playmaker role, put in a pin-point cross-kick for Vunivalu on the right touchline who soared high to win the ball in the air, then wrestled it over the line. Vunivalu scored a second try in identical circumstances in the last minute.

Dixon scored his second try from a lineout drive in the 49th minute, putting the Highlanders ahead 26-12.

The Highlanders clinched the match with a 70th-minute try to replacement hooker Liam Coltman and another four minutes later to winger Ngatugnani Punivai.
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