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Highlanders beat Force in bruising affair

NZN 1/04/2016

The Highlanders have won a brutal encounter over the Western Force 32-20 in Dunedin to surge to the top of the Super Rugby standings.

The defending champions snared their fifth successive victory but it was tougher than they may have contemplated against the abrasive visitors, who suffered a fourth straight defeat.

The game was marred by numerous injury stoppages, most notably for head clashes.

The worst was an apparently serious injury to Force No.8 Angus Cottrell, who exited on a stretcher with his neck in a brace midway through the second half following a lengthy stoppage.

All Blacks fullback Ben Smith didn't return following a head knock soon after halftime while prop Brendon Edmonds limped off with what appeared to be a serious knee injury early in the game.

It didn't stop the Highlanders unleashing a dominant scrum, which was the biggest difference between the teams in a surprisingly even affair.

The Highlanders' ability to score from long range was also impressive, when they held onto the ball.

Their handling errors and poor options in the first half left the door open for the Force, who scored two unconverted tries inside the first 10 minutes.

The first, to fullback Dane Haylett-Petty, came from a disastrous pass from Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne on his own tryline.

Force No.8 Ben McCalman doubled the lead before the Highlanders bagged high-octane tries to Osborne and flanker Dan Pryor to level the scores at 14-14 at halftime.

Force first five-eighth Peter Grant and Highlanders opposite Hayden Parker - standing in for the injured Lima Sopoaga - traded penalties before Matt Faddes started and finished another long-range try.

The teams traded penalties again but the hosts sealed victory when reserve back Jason Emery crossed for their fourth try in the 76th minute.

The result ended a run of four wins on Highlanders soil for the Force.

They end their three-match New Zealand tour without a win, having suffered heavy losses to the Hurricanes and Chiefs. Their Kiwi torment could continue next week when they host the Crusaders.

Conversely, the Highlanders have won three in a row against Australian teams and will want to continue that next week against Queensland in Brisbane.

The Highlanders sit three points clear at the top of the overall standings although they could be surpassed by the Chiefs or Brumbies, who meet in Canberra on Saturday.

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