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'Their set-piece failed them': Ex-All Black's message for winless Highlanders

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

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A former All Black and a current Super Rugby Pacific star have pinpointed where the Highlanders need to improve to turn their winless start to the campaign around.

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The Highlanders are without a victory after they opened their Super Rugby Pacific season with four straight defeats to the Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Blues.

That represents the worst start to a season the Dunedin-based franchise has endued their dire 2013 campaign, in which they lost their first eight matches and finished ahead of only the Southern Kings.

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What it’s like being the only non-Fijian at the Fijian Drua | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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What it’s like being the only non-Fijian at the Fijian Drua | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

Staring down the barrel of another fruitless year, Highlanders head coach Tony Brown remains optimistic that his side can still cobble together a respectable campaign, which still has 11 rounds to play in the regular season.

Brown told media after his side’s most recent loss against the Blues in Albany last Friday that there is still plenty to play for in a competition that grants play-off spots to eight of its 12 teams.

Such a high volume of play-off spots means the Highlanders are still in the hunt for a place in the quarter-finals come June, but victories will be required against Kiwi, Australian and Pacific opposition in the coming weeks to secure a post-season berth.

In order to achieve that, former All Blacks hooker James Parsons believes the Highlanders must improve their work at the breakdown and at the set-piece.

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Parsons, the former Blues captain and Super Rugby centurion, told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that doing so will enable the southerners to get the best out of their key player, captain and halfback Aaron Smith.

Parsons said Smith performs at his peak when his side dominates the set-piece and the breakdown, allowing him to play to his strengths with quick recycled ball to catch opposing defences off-guard.

“The Highlanders are a team, for me, that when their breakdown is humming, they’re humming because you can bring Aaron Smith and co into the game, and that’s what they had in the first half [against the Blues],” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“They were dominating the collisions, they were cleaning past the ball and it was giving Aaron the ability to run and put teams under pressure, but, more importantly, their set-piece was functioning, and their set-piece failed them in the second half.

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“They had a number of prime attacking opportunities, but it was either overthrown or bobbled ball and it didn’t allow them to flow on from there.”

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That played its part in the Highlanders surrendering a 13-3 half-time lead against the Blues to lose 32-20, and Parsons paid tribute to the way in which his former side were able to turn things around in the second half.

However, the former two-test international also sympathised with the Highlanders after having been involved with Blues teams that have failed to fire in previous years.

“I’ve been where the Highlanders have been, where they are right now,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, which also featured Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, who was a teammate of Parsons at the Blues during their bleak period.

“Bryn, you’ve been in teams with me when we’re in ruts like this, and there is a way out, and they’ll believe that, and I think their breakdown and set-piece is a key to that.

“I know it’s so cliche, but when the Highlanders nail their set-piece and they win the collisions and nail their breakdown, it brings their key players into the game, and that is the Aaron Smiths of this world.

“You go back to Dunedin last year when they played the Blues, they played on top of them, they won the collisions, and it was just ruthless and relentless in that 22, and they came away with points.

“At the moment, the Highlanders – I haven’t done the numbers on it – but before last weekend, they were 11th out of 12 [Super Rugby Pacific teams] in terms of conversion rate into the 22.

“The only team with less conversion rate was Fijian Drua, who were 12.5 percent, so 12.5 percent of the time they go into the 22, they came away with points.

“The Highlanders are 15 [percent]. Every other New Zealand team’s at 40 percent, and that’s just not the Highlanders side we know.”

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Hall, a five-time title-winner with the Crusaders, agreed with Parsons as he highlighted how effective the Highlanders, who he said were “not far off” from picking up their first win, can be when they get their game in order.

“Some teams can fall into the trap of doing too much and thinking you need to fix everything because you’re obviously in a bit of a rut,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I think, with Jippa’s points about their breakdown, if they can nail that breakdown and their efficiency in being able to improve their clean-outs and keep that up-tempo, the likes of Nuggy [Smith] you see in that first half, him being able to play on top of teams, and then they can start getting that variety of shape that they do have.

“If you can keep winning set-pieces, especially off lineouts, then they’ve got a lot of variety in their game that we’ve seen over the years with their special plays over the top to the midfielder, where you’ve got [special plays] around the front [of the lineout] that they can bring into the game.

“But, they’ve just got to be a lot better when it comes to that 22-metre zone.”

The Highlanders won’t play their scheduled match against Moana Pasifika this weekend after New Zealand Rugby confirmed on Wednesday that all three Kiwi-based round five matches have been postponed indefinitely.

Instead, the Highlanders will have to wait until at least next Saturday to play next when they host the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

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