Joseph wary of resurgent Melbourne Rebels

UNSURE: Jamie Joseph says it's hard to tell which Highlanders team will turn up tonight, the winning one or the losing one.
UNSURE: Jamie Joseph says it's hard to tell which Highlanders team will turn up tonight, the winning one or the losing one.

Which Highlanders team will show up against the Melbourne Rebels in Dunedin tonight?

Will it be the side that started the season by running out to a 24-0 lead before beating the Blues 29-21, or the team which was out-muscled and outplayed at Eden Park in a 30-12 loss to the same team five weeks later?

It's a head-scratcher for Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph, as much as the fans.

''You've got to take into consideration the quality of the opposition,'' Joseph said.

''Being mentally 'up' doesn't necessarily mean you are going to win. Take the Blues game, for example. Local derbies, even if you are getting beaten by 20 points, are tough games. I felt they were up for that mentally, but physically and technically we let ourselves down at crucial times.''

For the Highlanders, it's not enough for them to just want to win.

They also have to be smarter, harder and faster than the opposition because in most cases they don't have the same star power.

The Rebels appear to be a team riding the coat tails of an Australian Super Rugby resurgence.

No longer a virtual Morris dance, the Aussie conference is actually producing some good rugby and some close scorelines, as evidenced by the Rebels' 32-24 win over the Brumbies, a result which looked more like a typo for anyone reading it on Saturday morning.

''They had a good win last weekend,'' Joseph acknowledged.

''They are quite gritty, like the Force, and have some serious x-factor - Tamati [Ellison] and [Jason] Woodward - and a big lineout. We got pretty dinged up in the Blues game, which was quite a physical game with some big numbers for our boys and we've had a relatively light week because of that.

''We've had the Hurricanes and the Blues and then we go into a game against the Rebels where they do a bit of kicking early on but they don't go away. They taught the Brumbies a bit of a lesson, who I thought had been one of the better teams in the competition.''

Joseph may have concerns about a slow start after a light training week, out of necessity, for the Highlanders.

They need to start well, to gain some profit for their midfield bombs and then hold onto the ball once they've got some field position.

The Rebels have made four changes, two injury enforced, for tonight's game.

Flanker Colby Fa'ainga (hip) has been replaced by Sean McMahon, while winger Tom Kingston (concussion) has been swapped out for Japanese international Male Sau.

Shota Horie gets his first start of the season at hooker, while Toby Smith returns to the front row after a head knock.

Highlanders v Melbourne Rebels, 7.35 tonight, Dunedin

HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Kurt Baker, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, Gareth Evans, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Ma'afu Fia, Liam Coltman, Chris King. Reserves; Ged Robinson, Craig Millar, Matias Diaz, Josh Bekhuis, Elliot Dixon, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, TJ Ioane.

REBELS: Jason Woodward, Male Sau, Tamati Ellison, Mitch Inman, Tom English, Bryce Hegarty, Nic Stirzaker, Scott Higginbotham (captain), Scott Fuglistaller, Sean McMahon, Luke Jones, Hugh Pyle, Laurie Weeks, Shota Horie, Toby Smith. Reserves: Pat Leafa, Paul Alo-Emilie, Cruze Ah-Nau, Cadeyrn Neville, Jordy Reid, Luke Burgess, Angus Roberts, Alex Rokobaro.

REFEREE: Chris Pollock.

The Southland Times