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Flagging Highlanders set to face off v flourishing Blues

11 March 2022
The Highlanders lost their third game on the trot against the Hurricanes in Wellington. Photo: Getty Images
The Highlanders lost their third game on the trot against the Hurricanes in Wellington. Photo: Getty Images

Jeff Cheshire

There comes a point in a winless start when desperation starts to emerge. Where is that first win going to come from? How long is it going to take?

Three games in, and with just one bonus point and four tries to show for them, it is hard not to get that feeling about the Highlanders.

It does not get any easier tonight, either.

They face a star-laden Blues team packed with brute force and firepower at North Harbour Stadium, and on paper it should not be close.

Even with an injured Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, the Blues backline still contains Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke — among others.

It is artillery the Highlanders simply do not have.

They have done well to hold the ball and build phases, and their set piece has operated well.

But they have offered little attacking threat, and when they have methodically worked up the field, mistakes have let them down.

When those mistakes start to pile up, it can be tempting to start forcing things.

If the Highlanders can fix them, though, they have every chance of pulling out a win.

For what they lack in flair, they have made up for in effort and graft — they just have not been quite accurate enough.

And, for all the Blues’ flair, they have butchered a game they should have won and were fortunate to escape against the Chiefs last week.

Highlanders captain Aaron Smith admitted it was a tough situation, but felt the team remained in good heart.

He added the significance of the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy would add extra motivation.

"I think we’re still learning and adapting," he said.

"The thing with Super Rugby is it’s such a tough competition. If you get a few things wrong, results won’t go your way.

"Our group reviewed last week really well. We’re still building and we’re staying really positive.

"We’re just really grateful still to be playing rugby. As a team, we’re chasing an 80-minute performance. It is tough. But the excitement of the opportunity is still here.

"We’ve got an opportunity this week to go up to Auckland and play for a trophy that means a lot to us."

Smith returns to the starting line-up this week, after being injected at halftime last Saturday as Folau Fakatava was given a starting opportunity.

Mosese Dawai and Scott Gregory also come into the backline, replacing Sam Gilbert and Fetuli Paea, who drop out of the 23 altogether.

It was not confirmed whether either was among those who had contracted Covid-19.

Up front, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u will add some punch at No 8, while Gareth Evans slides to the openside flank.

Manaaki Selby-Rickit, one of the season’s outstanding players, rotates back in for Bryn Evans at lock.

Smith said the team had done well to create chances and it was just a case of remaining confident.

When the team played with speed and freedom, it was dangerous and it had shown that in parts.

It was just a case of it all coming together.

"It’s there," Smith said.

"But we don’t want to stack the pressure of the last three games. We just want our players to go out there and be themselves.

"We know against the Blues we’ll have to bring our A game. But I’ve got total belief that if we execute our plans well, turn up with the right intent, we can have a good game."

Super Rugby Pacific, Nth Harbour Stadium, tonight, 7.05

Highlanders: Connor Garden-Bachop,Liam Coombes-Fabling, Scott Gregory, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Mosese Dawai, Mitchell Hunt, Aaron Smith, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Gareth Evans, Shannon Frizell, Josh Dickson, Manaaki  Selby-Rickit, Jermaine Ainsley, Liam Coltman, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Hohneck, Bryn Evans, Hugh Renton, Folau Fakatava, Marty Banks, Ngane Punivai.

Blues: Stephen Perofeta, Mark Telea,Rieko Ioane, Bryce Heem, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Finlay Christie, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Taine Plumtree, Sam Darry, Luke Romano, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Soane Vikena, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Marcel Renata, James Tucker, Adrian Choat, Sam Nock, Tanielu Tele’a, Zarn Sullivan.

Republished courtesy of the Otago Daily Times.

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