Super playoffs place beckons for Highlanders
The size of the challenge is huge, but the potential reward is even bigger for the Highlanders as they take on the Waratahs in Sydney tomorrow.
The Waratahs have fashioned a 10-4 season to lead the Super Rugby competition by three points from the Sharks, with the Crusaders and Highlanders six points behind.
A win in Sydney would virtually assure the Highlanders a place in the post-season for the first time since 2002, and set them up for a shot at some home advantage in the playoffs.
The Waratahs are a fearsome presence and will be anxious to finish off well in their final home game of the season.
Prop Benn Robinson will make a franchise-record 131st appearance amongst a big forward pack which includes Sekope Kepu at tighthead, Tatafu Polota Nau at hooker and Wycliff Palu at No 8.
World class openside flanker Michael Hooper will captain the side.
"They are a really hard team to play against, because they don't have any weaknesses," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said.
"They've got a great set piece, a big scrum and a lot of X-factor outside, with big powerful runners."
So what do the Highlanders need to do to beat the competition frontrunners?
"We've just been concentrating on what we need to do to try and win that game. In my mind it's really just concentrating on our own game plan and executing it as best as possible," Joseph said.
Cleaning up the lineouts and spending as little time as possible in their own 22m would be vital, Joseph said.
Both areas were a concern during the win over the Chiefs last Friday.
"I thought there was a lot of messy mistakes in the lineouts, which seems to be the flavour of the season. We aren't necessarily being outplayed in that area, it's to do with the skill factor and option taking. The second one would be we've really struggled to get out of our 22m from kickoffs and lineouts. There's little mistakes pretty much anchoring us in our own half and that's just not good enough. We are proud of getting out of [the Chiefs] game with a win, but we put a lot of pressure on ourselves."
The Waratahs have averaged the most carries, metres and passes this season, while the Highlanders have spent the least amount of time in possession in the competition, statistics which point towards another 80 minutes of toil for the southern franchise.
The Highlanders have the worst defence of any of the teams in the top six.
AT A GLANCE
Waratahs v Highlanders, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, 6.05pm
WARATAHS: Israel Folau, Alofa Alofa, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Rob Horne, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper (captain), Stephen Hoiles, Kane Douglas, Jacques Potgieter, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota Nau, Benn Robinson. Reserves (two to be omitted); Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse, Paddy Ryan, Will Skelton, Pat McCutcheon, Mitchell Chapman, Brendan McKibbin, Jono Lance, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Cam Crawford.
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Tom Franklin, Ma'afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Kane Hames. Reserves; Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz, Chris King, Josh Bekhuis, Lee Allan, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Phil Burleigh.
Referee: Steve Walsh.
The Southland Times