Joseph wary of Canes' strength
The Highlanders will start as heavy underdogs against the Hurricanes in Dunedin tonight.
Jamie Joseph's outfit has been a mixed bag this season – a well taken win over the Blues to start the campaign, followed by a close loss to a very good Chiefs team in Hamilton and then a disappointing two-point loss at the hands of the Western Force.
Last year the Highlanders were already feeling the pressure of expectation at this point of the season, with three losses on the way to an eight-game losing streak despite several high profile offseason signings.
This year it's been the Hurricanes in the stocks through the early rounds of Super Rugby, with Mark Hammett coming under huge pressure before last weekend's 60-27 win over the Cheetahs.
The Hurricanes are too classy a team to be jousting for the wooden spoon in the New Zealand Conference – that's more likely to come down to a scrap between the Highlanders and Blues – but they need to live up to the hype at Dunedin Stadium.
Joseph, who enjoyed considerable coaching success with the Wellington NPC team before shifting to Dunedin three years ago, has a lot of respect for tonight's opponents.
"They are the same old Hurricanes. They had a hard tour, everyone underestimates what's going on in South Africa. Going there to play the Sharks and the Stormers – going there for any team is difficult. It's hard to get points over there," he said.
"They've bounced back and they scored 60 points against a Cheetahs team which beat us quite convincingly last year. No doubt it's going to be a tough game for us."
The Highlanders were gutted with their showing against the Force.
While the Perth-based team is travelling well, it was a winnable game for the Highlanders, who realise the importance of winning at home and boosting a fan base which tends to fade away as the season grinds on and the results don't come.
"We got some real honesty from the players," Joseph said. "They all admitted they weren't quite on the mark against a really fiesty Force team. The result was a measurement of that."
The Hurricanes have named two openside flankers – Jack Lam and Ardie Savea – and it will be interesting to see how they are used.
Joseph tried something similar against the Force and the visitors owned the advantage line for the entire game and had an edge at the breakdown.
John Hardie will be watching tonight's game from the stands, with Elliot Dixon playing off the blindside.
At his best Dixon is a good ballrunner but he's never been able to perform consistently at Super Rugby level. Tonight, against a quality team, he gets an ideal chance.
There will also be a opportunity for Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman to make up for a head scratcher against the Force.
An outstanding performer in a struggling team last year, Coltman is a lot better than he showed last Saturday and will be keen to prove it.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Dunedin Stadium, 7.35 tonight
Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Brad Thorn, Ma'afu Fia, Liam Coltman, Kane Hames. Reserves; Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz, Chris King, Jarrad Hoeata, TJ Ioane, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Shaun Treeby.
Hurricanes: Marty Banks, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Hadleigh Parkes, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Chris Smylie, Faifili Levave, Ardie Savea, Jack Lam, James Broadhurst, Mark Reddish, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Ben Franks. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Chris Eves, John Schwalger, Mark Abbott, Adam Hill, TJ Perenara, Matt Proctor, Andre Taylor.
Referee: Nick Briant
The Southland Times