Slow-starting Highlanders look to lift
July 19, 2014
The Highlanders will be after repeat of their win in Durban earlier this year © Getty Images
New Zealand's Highlanders are steeling themselves to take the battle to the Sharks early in their Super Rugby play-off match in Durban. The sixth-placed Highlanders struggled to find early momentum in their last two matches, falling to the Crusaders 34-8 last week and the table-topping Waratahs 44-16 the week before.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph says they were punished for slow starts in both matches, and have been working hard to improve that area of their game. "It's been those first 20-30 minutes that we haven't been able to get our game going in recent times," he said.
Joseph has recalled lock Jarrad Hoeta to the starting line-up for Saturday's match (early Sunday AEST) with a view to adding early intensity, also bringing in Ged Robinson at hooker as the Highlanders look to bolster their forwards after two sub-par performances.
"We need to start well and we feel that's the right selection for this game," he said. "The last two performances, especially up front, we haven't performed that well. Jarrad's experience, particularly over here in Africa against these big guys, I think will be invaluable."
In other changes, Lima Sopoaga has received the nod at five-eighth in a bid to get the Highlanders' backline firing early, while co-captain Ben Smith returns from illness at fullback.
"When we can't get our game going right from the start, that's a lot of pressure on our set piece. To be able to start well, we have to win our own ball and it has to be quality."
Making their first Super Rugby playoff appearance since 2002, the Highlanders managed a semi-finals berth off the back of some excellent midseason form when they won six games from eight starts. However, since the June Test window, the Highlanders have struggled, winning only one of their last three matches, as they struggled to get over the Chiefs before they were beaten convincingly by the Waratahs and Crusaders.
Joseph believes the quality of the opposition needs to be taken into account when assessing his side's performances in the back end of the season.
"I know we are getting a lot of exposure and pressure around how we didn't perform in the last two games, but they were the two best teams in the competition and last year's champions," Joseph told Fairfax News. "I'm pretty proud of the team really and we know we've got a tough ask on [Sunday] but ... we've got a tough ask every week. It's our right to be here and the players are addressing it that way. We've just go to go out there and get into them."
While the Highlanders downed the Sharks 34-18 in Durban in April, Joseph says they'll be facing a different side this time. Five-eighth playmaker Pat Lambie has been named on the bench and, although prop Tendai Mtawarira doesn't look to have recovered from a neck injury, half-back Cobus Reinach is a confirmed starter.
Joseph says the Highlanders will have their work cut out against the third-ranked Sharks.
"There's no doubt we're against the odds. They put 20-30 points on the Stormers last week, but the week before that they lost to the Cheetahs. They are beatable."
While Jake White told Fairfax Media the Sharks' defeat to the Highlanders earlier in the season is a positive as they enter the finals.
"In a lot of ways, it's probably a good thing for us, a boot that they beat us. Had we beaten them comfortably perhaps we would have gone into this game thinking it was a fait accompli," White said. "There's no doubt [the Highlanders] are a team that can score tries, they have the players. When they are on song, they can perform, they beat some big teams this year. [My] players will know it's not just going to happen. I think ... we were on a high in that pool game back in April, about to tour, and we ended up losing that game. We'll be a lot more focused this week."