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Highlanders took realist approach by benching All Blacks over opening rounds

By Ned Lester
Aaron Smith arrives for the Highlanders vs Chiefs match. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images.

The Highlanders put in an improved performance on Friday night, pushing the Chiefs in a physical contest to kick off round three of Super Rugby Pacific.

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The southern team have had a wretched start to their 2023 campaign, facing three of the top teams in the tournament over the opening three weeks and suffering the worst points differential in the competition by a wide margin to have them placed dead last on the table.

Following the Chiefs match, Stuff reported that Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody admitted he had limited optimism over his side’s chances against the three Kiwi powerhouse opponents, as evidenced by his resting of the All Blacks within the squad over the opening rounds.

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“You could look at it like that,” Dermody said. “We know we have to play our 100% best game to beat these teams, and I guess acknowledging that we’re not quite there at the moment.”

Round one saw the Highlanders take on last year’s runner-up in the Blues, a match that featured three of the Highlanders’ All Blacks in Folau Fakatava, Ethan de Groot and Shannon Frizzel but no Aaron Smith.

Smith was again rested for the second round, as were de Groot and Frizzel while Fakatava appeared only briefly off the bench as the Highlanders suffered another heavy defeat at the hands of the Crusaders.

The All Black centurion Aaron Smith’s return in round three was a boost for the 12th place Highlanders, as were the impact of de Groot and Frizzel while Fakatava sat out. A yellow card to Frizzel and injuries to both of the Highlanders’ playmakers made life difficult though, as the Chiefs capitalised on their numerical advantage and Smith was forced to finish the game playing at first five.

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Reporting on the injuries post game, Dermody said “there’s a few in there, I don’t know 100%, but there’s a bit of work to do for our physios and doctors in the next few days.”

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Also missing this week was Highlanders captain Billy Harmon. The loose forward was named in the All Blacks XV side for the team’s tour of Europe in 2022 before being called up into the All Blacks squad as injury cover. Dermody confirmed that Harmon’s absence on Friday night was due to the All Blacks’ rest requirements.

In a side that has already had its depth heavily questioned, Dermody emphasised the importance of managing his All Blacks players with a realist’s perspective on how to maximise the season’s results.

“Really conscious of having our best team available from now until the end of the season… and hopefully our All Blacks can add their energy for us.

“Now we’re four games to the bye, and we’ve got to find another spot in between there and hopefully the playoffs [for them to rest]. If you have a look at our draw I think you’ll be able to find where it is.”

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