Thrashing a reality check for the Highlanders

Last updated 05:00 04/06/2012
TEMPORARY RELIEF: The Highlanders lost 51-18 to the Crusaders, but there has been a lot to like about the southern side through their first 14 games of the season.

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Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has not given up hope of making the Super Rugby top-six playoffs, but acknowledges his team faces an uphill battle to get there.

The Highlanders head into the month-long international window eighth on the ladder after being thrashed 51-18 by the Crusaders on Friday night.

They finish the season with difficult games against the Chiefs in Dunedin on June 29 and the Reds in Brisbane a week later before picking up four points in the final round for the bye.

There is a logjam of teams vying for the three wildcard playoff spots, with the Chiefs, Stormers and Brumbies leading their respective conferences.

The Highlanders probably need to pick up a maximum of 10 points against the Chiefs and Reds and rely on a host of other results going their way to crack the finals for the first time since 2002.

Come the end of the season, the Highlanders may be left to rue their costly 26-20 loss to the Hurricanes in Dunedin, where they made much of play but let the game slip from their grasp late in the piece.

"There's still a bit of rugby to go. We've got two games left and the bye," Joseph said.

"We've got to play well and recover. We've had our chances throughout the season. We didn't take them at crucial times. There were a couple of games we did drop against the Hurricanes and Sharks; that was our own undoing. We beat ourselves."

The Highlanders will also wonder what might have been had first-choice first five-eighth Colin Slade and openside flanker John Hardie not missed large chunks of the campaign through season-ending injuries. Shaun Treeby, Kenny Lynn, Siale Piutau and Lima Sopoaga have all spent more time on the sidelines than the field because of injury, placing pressure on the depth in the squad.

The Highlanders have shown steady improvement from last season and have already won nine games – one more than in 2011.

Aaron Smith, Tamati Ellison, Chris Noakes, Nasi Manu, Nick Crosswell and Phil Burleigh have all taken their play to a new level under Joseph's tutelage this year and he said the franchise was starting to make major progress.

Before Joseph arrived in the deep south, the Highlanders were a basket case, but under him they have won 17 games in the past two seasons and regained their respectability.

Joseph said he was proud of what the team had accomplished in that time but added there was still unfinished business to take care of this season.

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"I think that's a really good summation of where we're at," Joseph said. "Last year, no-one gave the team a chance. They proved to the public they had a bit of ticker there. This year, they have improved.

"There's a lot more belief that they are true contenders in this competition and I think that's mental progress."

When asked what it would take to turn the Highlanders from a solid side into one of the competition frontrunners, Joseph said it came down to having an experienced and versatile squad. He was always on the lookout for prospective players for next season's squad and said the Highlanders were targeting a quality prop to add to their mix.

"(Against the Crusaders) our set piece was under severe pressure. There might have been three or four turnovers at scrum time. That's something we have to sort out. That's something the Highlanders have been contending with for some time.

"We've got some decent backs. Our top 20-odd players isn't too bad, but if you lose five or six of them, those players underneath have to come to the top. The teams that have done well with regards to results, have been the teams with the best depth."

Most of the Highlanders squad who are not involved in the All Blacks squad would take some time out in the next fortnight before linking back up to prepare for the final stage of the Super season.

The team had barely had a break since getting back into preseason training following the festive period, and Joseph said it was important for players to freshen up and have a deserved rest.

Joseph will spend the next couple of days catching up with this mother in Blenheim, before he returns to Dunedin to attend Sunday's North v South game.

- The Southland Times

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