Highlanders limp into the Super Rugby playoffs

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2014
Malakai Fekitoa
GETTY
DISAPPOINTED: A disappointed Malakai Fekitoa reacts after Saturday's loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch.

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Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph believes his players deserve plenty of credit for making it to the Super Rugby playoffs, despite limping their way over the line in the past two weeks.

The Highlanders have suffered resounding losses to the Waratahs in Sydney, and the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday night, but still managed to finish sixth on the table and secure their first trip to the finals since 2002.

"There's a lot of satisfaction over that for the players," Joseph said.

"A lot of people put a lot of work into getting this far.

"A lot of lustre has been taken off the achievement because in the last couple of games we have really struggled to put a performance together against two very good teams, who, every time I read the paper, are tipped to make the final. If you take that out of our season, it's been a real success."

The Highlanders opted not to return to Dunedin yesterday, instead overnighting in Sydney before pushing on to Durban after the Sharks beat the Stormers but failed to pick up the bonus point which would have put them ahead of the second-placed Crusaders and earned them a week off.

"The challenge is obviously a big one for us, to get on the plane and fly to Durban and beat the Sharks," Joseph said.

"If we can do that we are off to Sydney for a bigger challenge. I think if we go back to our first game against the Blues and we were up 25-0 at halftime - anything can be achieved if we play well. The last two games have really been affected by errors in our setpiece, which just hasn't allowed us to get our game going."

The Highlanders rarely managed to threaten the Crusaders on Saturday night, with little platform for Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Osborne to create the sort of havoc they did against the red-and-blacks in Dunedin.

Richard Buckman's outstanding solo effort was one of the few bright moments.

The Highlanders beat the Sharks 34-18 in South Africa back in April during a successful tour of the republic.

"That game is dead and gone, but the players will have in the back of their minds that they have done it, and if they've done it before they can do it again - but they are going to have to play a lot better than what we are playing at the moment."

Their last win was against the Chiefs after the June window, with a number of injuries affecting the team since.

Brayden Mitchell (concussion), Ma'afu Fia (seizures) and Ben Smith (infected leg) all played well in that against the Chiefs but were missing on Saturday night.

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"We were outplayed [Saturday night], across the park and I haven't seen the Crusaders play like that all season. They were very physical, their set piece was clinical. All the All Blacks took their game to another level. To be able to beat those guys you have to be right on the money, and we weren't."

The Highlanders are confident Smith will be available for the playoff game in Durban.

nathan.burdon@stl.co.nz

- The Southland Times

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