'No 10 curse' still haunts the upstart Highlanders
The Highlanders No 10 jersey has been one of the most cursed in Super Rugby but Lima Sopoaga's form there this season has been so consistent we had almost started taking his presence for granted.
Like the way you mentally add three points to the Highlanders score whenever they are awarded a penalty within kicking distance or the way you know to hold back a groan when he pushes through one of those shorts kicks, because more often than not they have been breaking open the opposition defence this season.
For most of Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph's tenure, he has been forced to throw the 10 shirt to whoever was available, rather than count on a first choice, with both Sopoaga and Colin Slade beset by a plague of problems.
Slade managed only 20 games in three seasons with a medical folder which included two broken jaws and a broken leg, while Sopoaga limped his way to 16 caps over the same period.
However, until spraining his ankle in an awkward tackle against the Stormers last weekend, Sopoaga has been as consistent as Auckland rain for the Highlanders this season and it's no coincidence the team has responded.
The big question: can Hayden Parker fill the gap against the Lions tonight?
As understated as Peter Parker, the Kurow native has barely been sighted this season but he showed enough last year to provide some confidence that he can play at this level.
"We are confident in every member of our team," Joseph said.
"When given the opportunity they've got to go out and perform. Trent Renata has played fullback and then first-five during the game last week.
"Richard Buckman has done particularly well on the wing. From one to 37 we've got confidence in our guys."
Statistically, the Lions have one of the best scrums in the competition and have promoted Marnitz Boshoff, who is kicking at just over 90 percent this season, to the starting team.
The Johannesburg-based team has won just one of its last 14 away games, including a 38-8 loss to the Chiefs last weekend, and sits 12th on the ladder with four wins this season.
Traditionally, New Zealand teams tend to do well in their first game home from South Africa but Joseph is still wary.
The Highlanders sit just outside of a wildcard place on points differential but the nature of a tight New Zealand conference is that it will not take much to fall off the pace.
"Every team has to do well to move forward," Joseph said.
"We have to focus on how we prepare as individuals and then go out there and do the job. Sometimes, we've prepared well and performed poorly and sometimes we've prepared poorly and played well. It's really up to the individual. We are halfway through the season and it's time to do the job."
The Highlanders suffered a setback yesterday with a back injury forcing the withdrawal of Shane Christie from the team. He has been replaced by Southland's John Hardie.
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Phil Burleigh, Jason Emery, Hayden Parker, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), John Hardie, Elliot Dixon, Josh Bekhuis, Joe Wheeler, Ma'afu Fia, Ged Robinson, Chris King. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Matias Diaz, Kane Hames, Tom Franklin, TJ Ioane, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, Gareth Evans.
LIONS: Chrysander Botha, Courtnall Skosan, Lionel Mapoe, Stefan Watermeyer, Anthony Volmink, Marnitz Boshoff, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley (captain), Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel, Martin Muller, MB Lusaseni, Julian Redelinghuys, Robbie Coetzee, Schalk van der Merwe. Reserves: Armand van der Merwe, Corne Fourie, Jacques van Rooyen, Rudi Mathee, Warwick Teckenburg, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, JW Jonker.
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Garratt Williamson
Assistant ref 2: Kane McBride
TMO: Vinny Munro Kickoff: 7.30pm
The Southland Times