Joseph: It's time for Highlanders to cut loose
As three South African sides loom on the Highlanders' radar, coach Jamie Joseph believes it's time for his players to break the shackles and shake off their inhibitions.
Funnily enough, after a scratchy Friday night 33-30 victory over the Melbourne Rebels that was significant from a competition perspective, Joseph talked about needing to remove "the burden" of the ladder as his men head into a South African-themed mini-season.
The Highlanders host the Bulls next Friday in Dunedin before heading to the Sharks and Stormers straight after the bye, and Joseph is convinced of the formula needed for success.
"We got the points, we got no injuries and I think we've learnt a lesson," said Joseph when asked to sum up the positives from his team's third win of the season - matching their output from the entire troubled 2013 campaign.
"You could see the players were disappointed with themselves, and there was more a sense of relief instead of excitement. We really need to have that attacking mindset we've been renowned for and not worry so much about what happens at the end.
"I get a feeling all the publicity around results is becoming a bit of a burden. They've got to go out and enjoy their football, and just attack. We've got some exciting players and the way we started the competition, when we didn't really have any expectations, allowed the team to play to its potential.
"Now, with the ladder there and teams moving up and down, it's placing a burden on our top players. I need to remove that as a coach and let these guys feel freer about playing football."
Given the next three foes, Joseph feels like an attacking mindset is imperative.
"Physically you've got to meet South African teams, but you can't just play their game. You've got to move the ball, and we've got to have a much better attacking mindset to beat South African teams so that's what we'll be working on this week."
It wasn't all mediocre fare for the Highlanders, who started and finished badly in front of a small crowd of 9501, but produced some quality stuff in the middle when impressive flanker Shane Christie, halfback Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith all crossed for tries.
The worry, from a Highlanders perspective, was the uncertainty with which they finished the game, seemingly in two minds whether to press for a bonus point, or take the victory. They never quite settled either after seeing their dominant scrum penalised repeatedly.
Christie had a massive game, and Joseph was only too happy to laud the contribution of his hard-nosed No 7 as well as unheralded winger Richard Buckman.
"He's just a good footballer … he's confrontational off the field with players who aren't up to standard, and on the field he's relentless and tireless," said Joseph of his Tasman openside. "Buckman has been one of our best and most consistent players. Those were the sort of players I looked for after a tough year - guys I felt wouldn't give in no matter the circumstances."
Aaron Smith berated himself after the game for giving away two tries in an otherwise sharp display, but Joseph said the continued spark provided by his All Black halfback and fast-rising five-eighth Lima Sopoaga (who goaled seven from nine) were vital.
One player who may find himself back in the mix is Brad Thorn after being dispatched for duty with the Taieri Eels over the weekend. "No doubt he'll be back either this week or the following one because we need a player of that experience and physicality to take on these guys."
Sunday Star Times