Highlanders keeping their heads down

Fri, 02 May 2014 13:05
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Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph says that his team cannot afford to look too far ahead in what is a cut-throat New Zealand conference this year.

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph says that his team cannot afford to look too far ahead in what is a cut-throat New Zealand conference this year.

The side from the deep south have had an encouraging start to the season and have positioned themselves well for a tilt at the play-offs after becoming the first side to beat the table-topping Sharks in Durban.

However, with just four log points separating the five New Zealand teams ahead of Saturday's matches, the conference is still wide open and Joseph said that the only thing on his team's mind is their next challenge against the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday.

"In terms of the competition it will be what it will be for us. I don't think we are a type of team that can start saying we must win and target games.

"We are not that sort of team, we are the type of team that prepares really well and gives every opposition the respect they deserve because it is a tough competition," he said.

If they manage to back up their win against the Sharks by beating the bottom-placed Stormers it will be Joseph's first unbeaten tour of South Africa and set them up well for the second half of the season.

Things have really turned around for the Highlanders after they endured a horror season last year and co-captain Ben Smith said that some early momentum had been key and added that the players relish Joseph's positive gameplan which allows them to express themselves.

"We had a good pre-season and probably learned from last year so it has gone pretty well for us and we have become pretty tight as a team. I think a couple of wins early on has helped our confidence.

"The coach's gameplan that he puts together for each team has got the guys pretty excited, we like to get our hands on the ball and play attacking rugby," he said.

Smith said that the input of assistant coach Tony Brown, who played for both the Sharks and the Stormers, has been very valuable on their tour.

"Browny had a couple of years over here so he knows how South African players think and how they like to play the game so that is pretty helpful and it has given us some insight into how they play," he said.

One of the stars of the Highlanders' campaign so far has been hard-running centre Malakai Fekitoa who has flourished since moving from the Blues last year.

He said that the key to his success has been the team environment which allows him to run hard at the defensive line, and joked that he might even learn to pass quite soon.

"I am enjoying my time with the Highlanders, it is fun. All of the boys look after me. I am not focused on the All Blacks I am just worried about the Highlanders.

"They always mock me for not passing the ball, but it is part of my strength to carry so I have to stick to my strengths and hopefully soon I will learn how to pass," he said.

He added that facing the Springbok midfield of Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh this weekend will be a major challenge as he rates them as the toughest centre pairing he has taken on yet.

"It is huge for me, this is why we play the game - to play against the top guys in the competition and I think this is the best midfield I have faced this year so far so I am looking forward to it," he said.

By Michael de Vries

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Pool AU
Team P W D L Pts
Waratahs 16 11 0 5 52
Brumbies 16 9 0 7 47
Rebels 16 7 0 9 36
Reds 16 4 0 12 22
Force 16 3 0 13 19
Pool NZ
Team P W D L Pts
Hurricanes 16 14 0 2 66
Highlanders 16 11 0 5 53
Chiefs 16 10 0 6 48
Crusaders 16 9 0 7 46
Blues 16 3 0 13 20
Pool SA
Team P W D L Pts
Stormers 16 10 1 5 45
Lions 16 9 1 6 42
Bulls 16 7 0 9 38
Sharks 16 7 0 9 34
Cheetahs 16 5 0 11 26