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Highlanders captain Aaron Smith shoulders blame for winless start to season

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Highlanders captain Aaron Smith has admitted that his own performances, as well as that of his halves partner and vice-captain Mitch Hunt, have contributed to their side’s winless start to Super Rugby Pacific.

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The Highlanders are yet to register a victory this season as they head into their round six clash against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.

Consecutive defeats at the hands of the Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Blues leaves the Highlanders with their worst start to a campaign since 2013, when they opened their season with eight straight losses.

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Over the course of their four matches this year, the southerners have scored just six tries, with only one of those scored by a back when wing Sam Gilbert crossed the chalk against the Crusaders in round two.

Figures like those illustrate the rut the Highlanders find themselves in at this stage of the season, and Smith has called on himself and Hunt to lift their games in a bid to notch the franchise’s maiden win of 2022.

“I think the honest truth around is we’re both not performing to the levels we hold our own standards to, so we can’t really put the blame on other players,” Smith ahead of his side’s clash with the Blues.

“A lot of it’s around our own execution of role. We’ve had a good look at ourselves, good connections. We get on really well, so we’ve had some good, honest convos with the coaches and with ourselves around how we can be better for our team.

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“With that opportunity, we’ve just got to perform and do what the team needs.

“We might have been stuck in the area of trying to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing and not doing what we do best, so we’re both probably going out there this weekend free of a lot of things and just trying to perform.

“For me, it’s just about trying to play my game, play at speed, and give Hunty the best ball he can, and then he can execute what he needs to. That’s definitely the mission around this weekend.”

Standing in their way this Saturday is a Blues team that dispatched the Highlanders with a 32-20 comeback victory after trailing 13-3 at half-time at North Harbour Stadium in Albany a fortnight ago.

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In doing so, the Blues retained the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for the third straight season, and they have since been bolstered for this week’s rematch by the return of key players such as Beauden Barrett and Tom Robinson.

That presents a daunting challenge for the Highlanders, who are battling injury and Covid concerns of their own as they prepare for a rare sequence of back-to-back Super Rugby matches against the same opposition.

Nevertheless, Smith was optimistic about righting the wrongs from the match that was played two weeks ago in a match that will be played in front of a home crowd for the first time this season following New Zealand’s relaxation of Covid restrictions.

“Obviously we did it [executed their own game] for 40 against the Blues last time, but really excited about getting out there, simplifying my own game, and being the best version of myself first,” the veteran halfback said.

“As a combo, we [Smith and Hunt] know if we can play well, it puts the team in a good stead to play well as well.”

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