Knowler: Surprising Highlanders eye playoffs

SHARKS CAGED: Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa helped his side to an upset 34-18 win over the Sharks in Durban.
SHARKS CAGED: Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa helped his side to an upset 34-18 win over the Sharks in Durban.

There's something gratifying about watching a Kiwi underdog take a big stick to a high-flying South African opponent.

That proved the case when the Highlanders humbled the Sharks 34-18 in Durban on Saturday morning, a result that could potentially set off a chain of events that causes mayhem among the so-called big hitters of Super Rugby.

If the Highlanders roll the bottom-placed Stormers in Cape Town next Sunday morning they could return to Dunedin with enough confidence to beat the Lions, a side that rarely enjoy their Australasian road trips, and set themselves up for a bold run to chase a position in the playoffs.

Anyone spouting such theories in the pre-season would have been lampooned, with last year's disastrous season giving the ridicule credence, but if Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph continues to allow his men to counter-attack from the deep, and encourages hot centre Malakai Fekitoa to combine neat footwork with powerful running, this side are capable of more upset wins.

When All Blacks coach Steve Hansen ruminated about New Zealand's first five-eighths with Fairfax Media last week he noted he was impressed by Lima Sopoaga's ability to drive his side around the park - a sentiment surely shared by Joseph.

The Highlanders' victory didn't come without a cost; wing Patrick Osborne took a buggy ride off King's Park because of an ankle injury and Shane Christie and Jarrad Hoeata are nursing back complaints.

How Chiefs coach Dave Rennie must wish he could find a miracle worker to cure Aaron Cruden's broken thumb following his side's 41-23 defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday night.

A rising injury count - hooker Mahonri Schwalger is the latest to enter the wounded ward because of a head knock - and the fact they have only won one of their last six matches add to his worries.

Even after the previous weekend's 18-17 loss to the Crusaders there was a belief the Chiefs could continue to rely on their work ethic and defence to survive the relentless grind of this competition.

Such optimism now seems misguided after they leaked five tries to the Brumbies and their own score was inflated by a couple of late five-pointers.

The rise and rise of the Hurricanes' sizzling attack shows no sign of slowing down and wing Cory Jane was one of the major benefactors as he scored three tries in their 35-21 win over the Reds in Wellington.

In the post-match interviews Reds skipper James Horwill, in his 100th game for the Queenslanders, berated his side for making so many errors and the 2011 title champions now appear destined to slip into obscurity.

Benji-gate threatened to engulf the Blues but their 21-13 victory over the Waratahs at Eden Park on Friday night pumped-up their tyres ahead of this weekend's match against the Reds in Auckland.

The Crusaders, who had the bye, welcomed the break because it allowed Kieran Read an extended break after collecting his second concussion of the season.

Flanker Richie McCaw (broken thumb) is expected to make his first appearance since the humiliating loss to the Blues in the second-round game on February 28 and lock Luke Romano, who has been absent for a month because of a calf injury, should also be available.


Fairfax Media