Three late unanswered tries have carried the Highlanders to their first win of the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season, as they eventually overcame Western Force 43-35 at Invercargill's Rugby Park.

The Aussies led 25-22 midway through the second half in contest that went try for try through 60 minutes. The first team to score consecutively seemed likely to take honours and that proved to be the case.

With the Force reduced to 14 players, flanker Sean Withy - a late replacement for injured All Black Shannon Frizell - put the southerners ahead for good, before winger Jonah Lowe scored his second try of the match and No.8 Hugh Renton sealed the deal with three minutes remaining.

The visitors managed two consolation tries before the match ended, depriving the Highlanders of a bonus point, but the result will come as a relief to a side that had suffered record losses to last year's finalists, the Blues and Crusaders.

"First win, it's good to get that and get the ball rolling," admitted captain Billy Harmon. "We had a tough start... it wasn't the prettiest win, but it's a win nonetheless and we just keep building from that."

The Force kicked penalties for an early lead, but Lowe had the opening try to get the Highlanders on the board. They lost first-five Mitch Hunt, when he stuck out a hand for a deliberate knockon that was lucky not to concede a penalty try, and during his absence, winger Zach Kilbirige put the Aussies back ahead.

Hunt returned to give his team a 15-13 lead at halftime, before Force hooker Tom Horton, Highlanders fullback Sam Gilbert and Force first-five Bryce Hegarty exchanged tries.

The eighth lead change came from Withy, who was not even in the matchday squad, but earned a start through injuries.

"We're dropping like flies, but credit to the boys," said Harmon. "Withy was ready to go and got called in late to the bench and then called in late to start, and played awesome.

"It just shows all the boys are ready to go."

They have chance to build on this outcome, when they host Fijian Drua at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium next Saturday.

Highlanders 43 (Lowe 2, Gilbert, Withy, Renton & Hunt tries; Gilbert 5 conversions & penalty) Force 35 (Kibirige, Hegarty, Amone, Callan & Horton tries; Hegarty 2 penalties & conversion, Keunzle conversion)

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2023-03-19T05:46:21Z dg43tfdfdgfd