Highlanders Must Recover Quickly To Trump Chiefs

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The travel factor with International sport is a constant, be it table tennis or rugby union. If you have to fly inter-continental routes, it has an effect. For the Highlanders Super Rugby side, they must use all their powers to negate recent extensive travel. The Highlanders must recover quickly to repel an expected barrage from the Chiefs in Dunedin, Saturday night.

This match will be critical for both sides. Each has accomplished step one: reaching the qualifying stages. These ‘play off’ matches next week will be sudden-death. This week is Round 17 of the regular season, but it still has that high intensity feel. The two sides are only separated by a number of competition points.

Current New Zealand Conference Standings

  • Top placed New Zealand side –  2# Chiefs 51 | 5# Crusaders 50 | 6# Hurricanes 48 | 7# Highlanders 48   (#overall placing)

An amazing feat, that table sees the four best New Zealand teams within a matter of points after 16 rounds. This shows the tremendously competitive nature of the rugby downunder, as well as the NZ rugby style. Brutal local derby matches only make fans want more–and organisers too. These are the highest ratings draw and the very best examples of Super Rugby. For the home side to win, they must use their ‘trump card’ to maximum effect on Saturday.

This will be the second match over this season [so far] between the two teams. The first result going the 2015 champions way 13-26. In that game, a returning Waisake Naholo had a great night. Improving over the 80 minutes, he scored twice and the All Black selectors could see he would return to his blockbusting self in 2016 (after injury) That game in Hamilton will be put away though, as sides must address that the opposition will each have improved since then. That was then, this is now.

Highlanders Must Recover Quickly

Saturday nights game will be the second of two extremely important games. The Crusaders will have hosted the Hurricanes in a match just as important. They will fight it out and some predict that it will set the tone for this game. Out and out attack most guess–that is the best method. Attack first, as there is only one round left to bank competition points that will determine the final standings.

When the Highlanders run out onto Forsyth-Barr Stadium at 7:30pm local time, they will look eye-to-eye with the current NZ conference leaders. They will face men who are as desperate, as they are. Expect no quarter to be given, and none given easily. Territory will be fought for, possession crucial and the Highlanders need to find a way to ‘trump’ the Chiefs staunch challenge.

That might very well be the Southern teams mantra. Hard-nosed coach Jamie Joseph (main picture) lives by those values, as do his men. They all commit to the same philosophies and ‘knuckle down’. Shane Christi and his co-captain Ben Smith epitomize that mentality. They know that to succeed, hard yards need to be earned.

Across the field, there will be 23 men who feel very much the same. The Chiefs are built on hard work, none more so than captain Sam Cane (pictured). He is a flanker who starts off with his defence and ability to turn-over ball primarily, before he can distribute to the talented backline. Dave Rennie will know, in Cane, he will get the best out of the game-plan, just like Joseph will. The coaches just believe in their players delivering a hard-fought game by putting their heads down first. What will be a major factor, will be the fatigue that travel can inflict on high-performing athletes.

Recover Quickly From Long Haul Flights

Today, teams have processes and techniques to deal with these factors. After a return flight from Buenos Aires, the primary concern is player welfare (as it should be). Players may have been brought together on Tuesday for group sessions that did not push them too hard. Not to say that individuals develop their own systems, but management will have long planned for this round. The pre-planning today takes nothing for granted, and it is that professionalism that will ensure the players can meet the challenge the Chiefs bring for the full 80 minutes.

It will be 23 players who play this game, as the modern game necessitates using all your reserves. Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Elliot Dixon and Malakai Fekitoa were rested for the South African match. Purposely, management knew that to face the Jaguares last week, they needed those men available. Success followed them, winning 8-34. That was followed by a return flight and this week has been about recovery.

In the coaches room, Tony Brown, Scott McLeod and Joseph will have been examining the Chiefs. Coming off their 5-50 thrashing of the Reds, they are confident and have Liam Messam back from his sevens sojourn. He will bring that ‘Chiefsmana’ that his group are deeply proud of. They also have James Low on the wing, Damian McKenzie at fullback–the games most attacking player. His battle with Ben Smith will be one to watch.

Up Front Battle Will Not Be for the Faint-Hearted

The scrums will crash into each other, so with Daniel Lienert-Brown and Alex Ainsley returning, the home side will have real metal about them. Liam Coltman joins the bench and James Lentjes holds his starting position over Dan Pryor and Liam Squire. The new All Black will be eager to bring his impact, so the scrum will be a bruising area of the game.

Forwards can also be used wider in the field, as first receiver more today and there are great examples of the team using their forwards well to help both spread the ball wide, and to be available to protect the ball. The key will be ball security, so flankers will be wide ranging and substitutes will play their part.

The backline will no doubt gain some miles over the full 80 minutes, so fresh legs here will be invaluable. The conditioning will tell, but this is where pre-season and in-season fitness is a standard today. The norm is for men like Aaron Smith to run themselves out, being replaced by young men like Te Aihe Toma. The backline general Lima Sopoaga will be a instrument for success, with assured kicking as well as innovative touches. It should be a fantastic match.

Under the Stadium Roof, Near Perfect Conditions

The match on Saturday will be under the Stadium roof. While the weather outside could be awful, near perfect conditions mean both sides will take advantage of this, just as they did last year. The qualifying final match on June 20 2015 was a real test match. Won 24-14 by the home side, on their way to their first franchise title. That was in fact the third match between the sides and in fact, it added to the recent list of victories over the 2011/2012 Champion Chiefs team. While history is a good thing, in sport it is ‘fleeting’. No team can be over confident. The Chiefs will head to Dunedin knowing a win; possibly a bonus point win will bring them a possible Premiership (topping the competition). That will be their focus.

The home team must do two things right on Saturday. (1) the Highlanders Must Recover Quickly from their fatigue. That should have occurred already. (2) they must begin well enough to repel Chiefs attack over the course of the match. Lead at each quarter, and they have every chance of winning. Score three more tries than your opposition? That might be last on their minds.

When the teams both run out onto the park, each will know that result from the Crusaders v Hurricanes match. maybe the ‘Canes have toppled the Crusaders. That benefits each side–none more so than the Highlanders. A points differential advantage over the Hurricanes means they can still top the NZ conference.

That would be the ‘cherry on the top’. But don’t expect Jamie Joseph or his men to think like that. They get the job done first, the only way they know how. By hard work, blood, sweat and tears. It will be a fascinating contest Saturday. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but Dunedin to witness this.

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Scott Hornell will be present for Last Word On Sport to witness this epic match, with thanks to the Highlanders franchise and New Zealand Rugby.

“Main photo credit”