Highlanders eye a Durban-double
Highlanders eye a Durban-doubleSHARE
The Highlanders will attempt what no team has had a chance to do before – beat the Sharks in Durban, twice in one season.
They will meet in a preliminary knock-out match at Kings Park on Saturday, after the Sharks finished third on the Super Rugby standings and the men from Dunedin sixth.
The Highlanders beat the Sharks 34-18 in South Africa back in April, during a successful tour of the Republic.
Now they return to the venue where they have recorded only two other victories – 43-7 in 2005 and 23-19 in 2003.
"The challenge is obviously a big one for us, to get on the plane and fly to Durban and beat the Sharks," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said, after his team suffered a demoralising 8-34 loss to the Crusaders at the weekend.
The Highlanders opted not to return to Dunedin, instead overnighting in Sydney before pushing on to Durban.
The Sharks, who beat the Stormers but failed to pick up the bonus point which would have put them ahead of the second-placed Crusaders, will be determined to avenge that loss earlier in the season.
If the Sharks win, they will travel to Christchurch to meet the Crusaders in one semifinal. If the Highlanders win they will meet the table-topping Waratahs in Sydney.
"If we can do that [beat the Sharks] we are off to Sydney for a bigger challenge," Joseph told a media gathering.
"I think if we go back to our first game against the Blues and we were up 25-0 at half-time – anything can be achieved if we play well.
"The last two games [the 8-34 loss to the Crusaders and a 16-44 defeat at the hands of the Waratahs] have really been affected by errors in our set-piece, which just hasn't allowed us to get our game going."
Joseph said they would not be looking back too much to their Durban win in April.
"That game is dead and gone, but the players will have in the back of their minds that they have done it, and if they've done it before they can do it again – but they are going to have to play a lot better than what we are playing at the moment."
Their last win was against the Chiefs after the June window, with a number of injuries affecting the team since.
Brayden Mitchell (concussion), Ma'afu Fia (seizures) and Ben Smith (infected leg) all played well in that against the Chiefs but were missing at the weekend.
"We were outplayed [this past Saturday], across the park and I haven't seen the Crusaders play like that all season," the Highlanders coach said.
"They were very physical, their set piece was clinical. All the All Blacks took their game to another level.
"To be able to beat those guys you have to be right on the money, and we weren't."
The Highlanders are confident Smith will be available for the play-off game in Durban.
Joseph believes his players deserve plenty of credit for making it to the Super Rugby play-offs, despite limping their way over the line in the past two weeks.
"There's a lot of satisfaction over that for the players," Joseph said.
"A lot of people put a lot of work into getting this far.
"A lot of lustre has been taken off the achievement because in the last couple of games we have really struggled to put a performance together against two very good teams, who, every time I read the paper, are tipped to make the final. If you take that out of our season, it's been a real success."
The Highlanders would do well to put the 34-8 thrashing at the hands of the Crusaders behind them, but the Sharks are unlikely to let them.
Jake White's men, masters of the tight stuff and having got back on to winning ways with their 34-10 win over the Stormers in Cape Town, will have seen the way the Highlanders' set piece was ruthlessly dismantled by the Crusaders and are unlikely to stray too far from the template provided by Todd Blackadder's men.
"For me it came down to our set piece. [We were] absorbing all the pressure the Crusaders were putting on us, but when it was our turn to put pressure on them we couldn't win our own ball.
"When you play the best teams in the competition you have to play at your best. I'm not sure we've done that.
"Both teams we've played against the last two weeks [Crusaders and Waratahs] we've struggled to win our own ball or clean ball.
"When we've done that, for example against the Chiefs the week before, we've scored some good set piece tries, as we have all year. I guess that comes down to pressure and the big moments in the big games."
Sources: APNZ & The Southland Times