'I'd love nothing more': Aaron Smith's plan to 'ruin a few people's dream of a Blues-Crusaders final'
In fact, the veteran halfback is relishing the fact that most onlookers seemingly rank the Highlanders as outsiders to make next weekend’s grand finale, a match of which the Blues and Crusaders are favourites to meet each other in.
In order to make their first final in six years, the Highlanders must overcome a staunch Brumbies outfit in front of their home fans in Canberra on Friday.
As a team the thrives on their fast, dry track under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, the southerners will be tasked with combating an abrasive Brumbies side in cold, wet conditions at GIO Stadium in two days’ time.
The weather forecast won’t work in the Highlanders’ favour, but that doesn’t bother Smith, who has been re-called into the starting lineup after he was rested from last week’s 59-23 thumping of the Waratahs.
That win propelled Clarke Dermody’s men into second place on the competition table, and it’s now a three-horse race between them, the Blues and the Crusaders to make the title-deciding match.
Victory in the Australian capital won’t guarantee the Highlanders of a place in that final, but it will ensure they remain a strong chance to compete for their first championship since 2015, something few back them to actually pull off.
“We know it’s going to look totally different playing in Canberra,” Smith said of this week’s upcoming encounter in comparison to his side’s demolition of the winless Waratahs in Dunedin last Saturday.
“The media and the people and fans are all probably talking about wanting to see a Blues-Crusaders final, but I’m sure the Rebels aren’t looking to roll over and I’m sure the Force aren’t looking to roll over on the Blues either.
“As I said, all we can control is how we play if we land with a bonus point, but, for me, I’d just like to get a win in Canberra. It’s very hard to play there. We just want to control the fate of what we can control and that’s how we play, how we prepare.
“If we ruin a few people’s perfect dream of a Blues-Crusaders final, I’d love nothing more than to do that.”
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According to Smith, just how the Highlanders can turn the so-called dreams of the Blues’ or Crusaders’ faithful into a nightmare all comes down to their defensive fortitude against the Brumbies.
The 32-year-old said that, after an inconsistent Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, defensive improvement has been a focal point in training for the Highlanders after some shoddy displays in the all-Kiwi league.
Smith pointed to his side’s lacklustre 39-17 defeat at the hands of the Blues in March as an example of what can happen if their defence falters.
“Any game in the Aotearoa comp where we tackled well we usually won, and then games where our tackle percentage was low, or we gave away too many penalties, we lost and probably lost ugly too,” Smith said.
“Games like the Blues game where we didn’t play very well up there and tackled very poorly at about 81 percent, so, for us, it’s about that, but myself, Ash [Dixon] and Hunty [Mitch Hunt] will be very conscious of trying to feel the flow of the game.”
Smith is aware of his side’s attacking prowess, though, and that’s something of which they will look to utilise where possible, especially at the set piece.
“If there’s any opportunities to get some extra tries, if we can mount good moments, [we’ll take them], but as I said, those conversations between me, Mitch and Ash will be had, but our messaging towards the team will just be staying moment to moment.
“As I said, back our defence, try to win that territory battle, and if we’re trying to get some lineouts in our 22, as us Highlanders, we pride ourselves on set piece moves.
“We know we’ve got tries in us, but we’ve got to be able to be good on defence and not let the Brumbies in as well.”
The added complexity of bonus points makes the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final permutations tricky to decipher, and with New Zealand sides dominating against their Australian counterparts, those extra points will become vital by the end of the weekend.
However, Smith is refusing to get carried away with how many more tries the Highlanders can score than the Brumbies until they’re in a position during the match where they can afford to focus on such permutations.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 9, 2021
“It’s about making sure we stay on. Yes, we’ve won our games comfortably at times, but that’s about us and it’ll be easier to drive that message if we get to that point in the game where we’ve got a good buffer,” he said.
“Personally, I think we’re at that spot now where we’ve got to throw a little bit of caution into the wind to try and create the most controlled, positive action around trying to go for tries.
“No one’s kicking goals at the moment, so it’s not like we’re not going for it, but, around the moves and around the game being won, it’s going to be won with our defence and our discipline.
“The Brumbies build everything through scrum, penalties, maul penalties, kick to the corner, go again, and they’re very good at it. Everything they get is from what we give them, so hopefully it’s bugger all.”
Equipped with a strong forward pack that thrives on set piece work, Smith understands the threats that the Brumbies pose, which they used to devastating effect as they shocked the Hurricanes to win 12-10 in Canberra last weekend.
“We watched that Hurricanes game very closely and the bigger their player, their physicality, their ability to slow down your attack, it’s pretty impressive, so we’ve got a big job there.
“Our forwards have got a massive, massive day at the office coming up, so it’s up to us 9s and 10s to put our boys in the best spots.”
With all that – the weather conditions that work in the forward-orientated Brumbies’ favour, their defensive mindset and the ongoing bonus points conundrum – in mind, it’s easy to see why the Highlanders are being considered outsiders to make the final.
But, as is always the case with the Dunedin-based franchise, their underdog status won’t stop them from throwing the kitchen sink to book their place in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final.
“We hold all the cards,” Smith said. “We’ve got a real good chance here. We’ve put four good performances together to give ourselves a chance at making a final, and I’m just really happy we’ve got a chance and I hope we can live up to the moment.”
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