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Highlanders remain optimistic despite worst start to season since 2013

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Elias Rodriguez / www.photosport.nz

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The Highlanders remain optimistic about their chances of securing their first Super Rugby Pacific win despite falling to their worst start to a season in nine years.

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Not since the dismal 2013 Super Rugby campaign, in which they finished ahead of only the Southern Kings with three wins from 16 matches, have the Highlanders endured a winless start three matches into a new season.

That’s exactly what has transpired over the last few weeks, though, as successive defeats at the hands of the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes leaves the Highlanders with only one competition point to their name.

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Only the Melbourne Rebels and Moana Pasifika rank lower on the table than the Dunedin-based franchise heading into their round four clash against the Blues in Albany on Friday.

That, however, hasn’t stopped assistant coach Clarke Dermody from staying upbeat about his side’s chances against one of the competition’s title frontrunners at North Harbour Stadium.

Speaking to media on Monday, Dermody said the Highlanders are capable of walking away from this weekend’s match with their first victory of the year provided they produce a drastically improved effort after last week’s dire 21-14 loss to the Hurricanes.

“I think it’s just finishing those opportunities,” Dermody said when asked what the Highlanders need to do to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after their season-opening of defeats.

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“If you actually watch the game back, we created so much, but last pass or, like I say, just trying a bit hard in that last two metres.

“There’s a couple of maul tries we could have executed, pushover scrum, a kick to the corner – there’s a lot of things that if we tidy up, it’s a different game.

“We’re not far away. It’s just going to be tough to turn it around against the Blues because they’re a quality outfit.

“[They] obviously beat us in the [Super Rugby Trans-Tasman] final last year, but we know how they’re playing, so pretty confident if we go up and if get our game right, we can get a win.”

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Dermody’s comments come after “hugely frustrated” head coach Tony Brown said in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricanes loss that the Highlanders had lost their “mojo” and are staring down the barrel of a “pretty tough season” if they can’t find it soon.

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Brown’s frustrations stem from the fact that his side continually blew try-scoring opportunities despite dominating the ball with 60 percent of the possession.

The Highlanders boss made particular note of the fact that the southerners coughed up 22 turnovers, which he said “is just not good enough at this level”, a sentiment that Dermody agreed with on Monday.

“It was pretty clear straight away while we lost to the Hurricanes,” Dermody said of the franchise’s high turnover rate.

“We obviously turned the ball over 48 percent of the time. That’s a stat that we tracked through the game, it’s a live stat, so I guess it’s just being able to learn from that and, if we’re heading that way again, how do we change it during a game?

“It’s a bit late to try and change it now. It was a game we feel like if we executed, we win, but unfortunately we didn’t, so we haven’t.”

Dermody added that a similarly error-filled performance against the Blues, whose forward pack he highlighted as a key strength of theirs, would be costly for the Highlanders.

“They’re a team that you don’t want inside your 22. They’re pretty clinical when they get opportunities in that last zone on the field, so turnovers will kill anything, and we had quite a few on the weekend.”

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