Highlanders loose forward Elliot Dixon defying injury bug
Mention the word injury to Elliot Dixon and he will bolt in search of the nearest hunk of wood.
The 27-year-old is one of the few Highlanders loose forwards left standing, and will co-captain the Dunedin-based franchise against the Western Force on Saturday night.
Dixon has watched teammates Liam Squire (thumb), James Lentjes (elbow), Luke Whitelock (calf), Shane Christie (illness) and Dan Pryor (knee) all go down this season.
Then there are the injuries to All Blacks Kieran Read (thumb) and Jerome Kaino (knee) further threatening to make loose forwards an endangered species.
"Don't jinx me. I'm just touching wood right now," Dixon said from Perth.
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"I suppose with a competition like Super Rugby, in the loose forwards, it's a contact area. A lot of the boys get injured just through attrition. It's a lot of games and versing a lot of big boys.
"There is no real secret, I think it's just luck of the draw and doing your rehab and making sure you're putting in the work behind the scenes."
Dixon, who could add to his three test caps against the British and Irish Lions in June and July, had his request to move from the blindside flank to No 8 against the Force granted by coach Tony Brown this week.
He knows the big Force pack will fancy themselves to tickle up the visitors in the third and final match of their road trip, and feels he can have a bigger impact at the back of the scrum.
"I wanted to get in the middle and see if I can hopefully slow down the big boys the Force have got," Dixon said.
"I think with No 8 you get your hands on the ball a bit more and get to get involved. Last week was a pretty muddy affair and it felt like I was sitting there watching for a long period of the game."
The Highlanders tipped up the Force in Dunedin last season, but have generally struggled against the Australian outfit, losing six of their last 10 matches against the side.
Earlier this week, Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett said the 3-7 Force were one of the best defensive teams in the competition.
Dixon agrees, and can see similarities in the way they go about their work.
"They're a very physical side. I think they play a lot like us. They're a defensive based team and they like to pride themselves on their defence and putting the ball back and pressuring teams," he said.
With rain following the Highlanders from Pretoria to Perth, another slugfest is on the cards.
Should the Highlanders need to conjure up some magic late in the game, as they did to beat the Cheetahs and Bulls the past two weeks, they've got extra firepower on the bench in the form of All Blacks Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga.
Sopoaga is set to play for the first time since pinging a hamstring in round three, while Brown has opted to give Kayne Hammington his first Super Rugby start at halfback.
"We just wanted to give Kayne an opportunity and probably just lessen Aaron Smith's load after a pretty hectic  or so rounds," Brown said.
He doesn't have a pre-determined plan in regards to when Sopoaga will be injected into the game, but hinted first-five eighth Marty Banks would remain on the field when the time came.
The game marks Highlanders lock Tom Franklin's 50th game for the franchise, a milestone he called "pretty special".
AT A GLANCE
Highlanders: Matt Faddes, Patrick Osborne, Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Tevita Li, Marty Banks, Kayne Hammington, Elliot Dixon (cc), Dillon Hunt, Gareth Evans, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon (cc), Aki Seiulu, Guy Millar, Joe Wheeler, Jackson Hemopo, Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Rob Thompson.
Force: Pek Cowan, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Jermaine Ainsley, Richie Arnold, Adam Coleman, Ross Haylett-Petty, Brynard Stander, Richard Hardwick, Ian Prior, Peter Grant, Alex Newsome, Bill Meakes (c), Curtis Rona, Semisi Masirewa, Luke Morahan. Reserves: Anaru Rangi, Francois van Wyk, Tetera Faulkner, Matt Philip, Lewis Carmichael, Isireli Naisarani ,Michael Ruru, James Verity-Amm.
Referee: Shuhei Kubo
Kickoff: Saturday, 9.45pm (NZT)