Highlanders aim to upset Sharks, odds in playoff

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014
Ben Smith
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
BIG BOOST: Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith will return from injury to face the Sharks in Durban.

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In a season where the Highlanders have performed well above expectations, one more against-the-odds performance is required in Durban tomorrow morning.

The sixth-placed Highlanders - making their first Super Rugby playoff appearance since 2002 - take on the third-placed Sharks at the 52,000-seat Kings Park.

The Highlanders have got this far on the back of some excellent midseason form when they won six games from eight starts.

However, since the June test window they've struggled to get over the Chiefs and then been beaten convincingly by the Waratahs and Crusaders.

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph believes the quality of the opposition needs to be taken into account when assessing his team's form in that period.

"I know we are getting a lot of exposure and pressure around how we didn't perform in the last two games, but they were the two best teams in the competition and last year's champions," Joseph said.

"I'm pretty proud of the team really and we know we've got a tough ask on [Sunday] but ... we've got a tough ask every week. It's our right to be here and the players are addressing it that way. We've just go to go out there and get into them."

The Highlanders have struggled at setpiece time against clinical Waratah and Crusader forward packs.

Their lineout, in particular, has been put under pressure and Joseph has opted to bring in journeyman hooker Ged Robinson, used almost exclusively off the bench this season, and lock Jarrad Hoeata to try to bolster that part of the Highlanders' game.

"We have to start well against a really good Sharks team and to be able to start well we have to win our own ball and it has to be quality. We have to execute what we've been doing all week," Joseph said.

"There's no doubt we are against the odds, but the team feels like that anyway, every time we take the field, particularly here in Africa. They put 20 or 30 points on the Stormers last week, but the week before that they lost to the Cheetahs. They are beatable, but you have to play well."

Sharks coach Jake White is using his team's 34-18 loss to the Highlanders in Durban back in April as a positive.

"In a lot of ways, it's probably a good thing for us, a boot that they beat us. Had we beaten them comfortably perhaps we would have gone into this game thinking it was a fait accompli," White said.

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"There's no doubt [the Highlanders] are a team that can score tries, they have the players. When they are on song, they can perform, they beat some big teams this year. [My] players will know it's not just going to happen. I think ... we were on a high in that pool game back in April, about to tour, and we ended up losing that game. We'll be a lot more focused this week."

Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith is aware of the threats posed by the Sharks.

"They like to get into the game through their big forward pack, that's something that we are going to have to shut down this weekend. In saying that, they've got a backline that backs up that forward pack pretty well. As long as we can get into our game and play our structures, I think we'll be fine."

The Sharks' love of the bomb is something the Highlanders are also aware of.

"We've watched the last few games and they've used that tactic. They've put a bit of pressure on through their high ball, so we expect that this weekend. As long as we take them, there's opportunities that can come from that."

If the Highlanders do beat the Sharks they will take on the Waratahs in Sydney in the semifinals, while the Sharks would head to Christchurch to play the Crusaders.

AT A GLANCE

Champions

Sharks: n/a

Highlanders: n/a

Runners-up

Sharks: 1996, 2001, 2007, 2012

Highlanders: 1999

Super 15 results

2014 regular season: Highlanders 34 Sharks 18 at Durban

2013 regular season: Highlanders 25 Sharks 22 in Dunedin

2012 regular season: Sharks 28 Highlanders 16 at Durban

2011: Did not play

2014 Super Rugby regular season

Sharks: Played 16 won 11 lost 5; points for 406, against 293; bonus points 6, points 50, 3rd

Highlanders: Played 16 won 8 lost 8; points for 401, against 442, bonus points 10, points 42, 6th

Tries scored (ranked in competition)

Sharks: 29, 13th

Highlanders: 39, 8th

Missed tackles

Sharks: 216, 14th

Highlanders: 311, 1st

Top points scorer:

Sharks: Francois Steyn, 148

Highlanders: Lima Sopoaga, 166

Top try scorer

Sharks: Cobus Reinach, 6

Highlanders: Malakai Fekitoa, 6

Teams

Sharks: SP Marais, Sibusiso Sithole, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Francois Steyn, Cobus Reinach, Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (captain), Thomas du Toit. Reserves: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Etienne Oosthuize, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Pat Lambie, Tonderai Chavhanga.

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, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris King, Ged Robinson, Kane Hames. Reserves; Liam Coltman, Matias Diaz, JP Koen, Josh Bekhuis, Tom Franklin, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, Gareth Evans.

Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)

- The Southland Times

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