Ask anyone at the Highlanders and they'll say tonight's game against an NZ Barbarians side is about a lot more than just an opposed training run.
The Highlanders make a rare visit to Invercargill to take on the invitation team with their thoughts firmly focused on a three-game stretch which will make or break their 2014 campaign.
Sitting fifth in a desperately tight race for the playoffs, the Highlanders take on the defending champion Chiefs in Dunedin on June 27, followed by the Waratahs and Crusaders away - both of whom are sitting above them on the table.
"We've done a bit of work last week and this week and we are treating this game like a trial," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said.
"Some of our guys need to perform or run the risk of not being selected the following week so [tonight's] really important for us. Some places are taken by our key players, but some places are up for grabs."
While the Highlanders were happy to still be in contention for a Super Rugby playoff spot heading into the June test window, Joseph knows the team needs to arrest what was really a slide into the three-week break, after bonus point losses to the Crusaders and Reds.
"The fact is we've lost two of our last three games and it's just not good enough," he said.
"They've been some spirited performances, but on the ledger we've still come second. Had we won those tight games we'd probably be through and we've put ourselves under a lot of pressure because of that."
While the Highlanders will welcome back their All Black contingent of Malakai Fekitoa and Ben and Aaron Smith, and players like Shane Christie, Richard Buckman, Kane Hames, Joe Wheeler and Lima Sopoaga have cemented their places in the team, there is more competition around hooker, the loose forward mix and second-five.
There will also be interest in the performance of former Blue Mountain College head boy Gavin Stark, a New Zealand secondary schools representative last year.
A top schoolboy sprinter, Stark has impressed Joseph with his speed and gets his opportunity after Patrick Osborne was called into the All Black camp.
The loss of Kurt Baker (torn hamstring) and Craig Millar (dislocated shoulder) had put pressure on the Highlanders' depth, following season-ending injuries to Brad Thorn and Buxton Popoali'i.
Props Scott Manson and JP Koen will get an early chance to put their hands up for next year's Highlanders squad, while the likes of Ross Geldenhuys, Michael Fatialofa and Willis Halaholo will have similar ambitions.
The game is also the first chance for the new Stags coaching bench of Brad Mooar, Clarke Dermody and Hoani Macdonald to run a game at Rugby Park.
HIGHLANDERS: Props - Kane Hames, Chris King, Ma'afu Fia, Scott Manson; hookers - Liam Coltman, Ged Robinson; locks - Jarrad Hoeata, Josh Bekhuis, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler; loose forwards - Lee Allan, TJ Ioane, John Hardie, Elliot Dixon; halfback - Frae Wilson, Scott Eade; first five-eighths - Lima Sopoaga, Hayden Parker; midfield/outside backs - Jason Emery, Shaun Treeby, Phil Burleigh, Winston Stanley, Jayden Spence, Richard Buckman, Gavin Stark, Trent Renata.
BARBARIANS: Props - Alex Hodgman, JP Keon, Morgan Mitchell, Ross Geldenhuys; hookers - Brayden Mitchell, David Hall; locks - Alex Ainley, Michael Fatialofa, You Youngman, Craig Smith; loose forwards - Gareth Evans, John Dampney, Bill Fukofuka; halfback - Toby Morland, Nick Ealey; first five-eighths - Willie Ripia and Broc Hooper,; midfield/outside backs - Rico Gear, Tei Walden, Willis Halahalo, Yasutaka Sasakura, Keanu Kahukura, Jamie Verran, Bryan Milne.
- The Southland Times
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