Canes Chat: Injured Highlanders face Canes
It will be a battered and bruised Highlanders team that finally arrives back in Dunedin tonight after a tough tour of South Africa.
A 28-16 loss to the Sharks in Durban has seen the Highlanders lose ground on the Super Rugby table, but if it weren't for that miraculous comeback in Bloemfontein the previous weekend things would have been much worse.
The 12-point loss aside, the Highlanders will need to find something extra if they are to see off the Hurricanes in Dunedin this weekend.
The franchise's injury crisis among the loose forwards has deepened with Doug Tietjens – the Highlanders' third string openside – hobbling off just quarter of an hour into the game against the Sharks.
His replacement, Southland's Elliot Dixon, didn't even see out the half before he succumbed to a shoulder injury.
Jamie Joseph has already lost John Hardie and Nick Crosswell for the season and Hale T-Pole will now be pressed into service after being brought into the wider squad as short-term injury cover.
With Andrew Hore and Siale Piutau both spending time in the blood bin in the first half, it's little wonder the Highlanders struggled to get any pattern into their attack, despite dominating the ball.
Baby-faced assassin Pat Lambie was the major figure in the game, kicking all eight of his attempts at goal and scoring the Sharks' only try for a 28-point haul.
Where the Highlanders had success earlier in the season when they contested the ball at the ruck, without the likes of Hardie or even the suspended James Haskell – who still has two weeks to serve on his ban for punching – they are struggling to turn over any possession.
Potent in that area at the start of the season, Hore also appears to be due for a spell.
The Highlanders simply can't afford to give away the number of penalties they have been in kickable areas of the field, with another boy wonder in Beauden Barrett sure to punish them at Dunedin Stadium next weekend if they do.
The Highlanders will also have plenty of time on the plane ride home to talk about their back-pedalling scrum and a lineout which looked a bit faulty against the Sharks.
Despite struggling for a platform, the Highlanders did get themselves into try-scoring positions, but they would then cough up the ball just when the Sharks looked ready to break.
Two Mike Delany misses in the first half saw them fall behind the scoreboard pressure being applied by Lambie, but the Highlanders did take the lead with half an hour to play when Kurt Baker found himself on the end of the chain.
From that point on Lambie kicked the Sharks clear and then Hosea Gear made a mess of a bomb and Lambie pounced.
The Highlanders were unable to find a second try, which would have at least given them a bonus point, and then had injury added to the insult when Tamati Ellison hobbled out of the game late.
Things don't get any easier for the Highlanders, who now host the Hurricanes and Blues over the next two weeks. Games against the Blues and the resurgent Crusaders will take them to the June test window.
With their second bye not coming until the final round of the regular season, the Highlanders' season remains in the balance.
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett said yesterday that the time for being tentative is over as his young side looks to make a run at a Super Rugby playoff berth.
Just four points separate the two teams after the sixth-placed and now Highlanders' loss to the Sharks and the Hurricanes are riding a wave of confidence after thrashing the Blues on the weekend.
When the two teams met earlier this year the Hurricanes suffered a 19-17 last-minute loss.
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The Southland Times