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'There'll be a few surprises': Highlanders outline how they can shock Blues

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)

They know they have been far from their best in recent weeks, but Highlanders head coach Tony Brown and captain Aaron Smith remain optimistic of shocking the Blues this weekend.

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The Highlanders limped into the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals as the competition’s eighth-placed team on Sunday despite losing 31-30 to the Rebels at AAMI Park in Melbourne.

Securing a losing bonus point was enough for the Dunedin-based franchise to clinch the last spot in the top eight, which comes in spite of them winning just four of their 14 matches this season.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 15
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Their reward for making the post-season is a quarter-final clash against a star-studded Blues outfit at Eden Park in Auckland this Saturday.

Coming up against a team that is in the midst of a record-breaking 13-match winning streak to finish the regular season at the top of the table leaves the Highlanders as massive underdogs as they search for an unlikely semi-final berth.

Brown made no secret of the fact that is side are viewed as significant outsiders to progress past this weekend, but suggested that status could be of benefit for the Highlanders.

“It’s good being written off. I think we’ll embrace the underdog tag, and the Highlanders have always sort of had that tag anyway, so it suits us,” Brown said after the Rebels defeat.

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“We’ve just got to find a way to win, and we’ll be putting all of our efforts into preparing as well as we can.

“We’ll have a few surprises for them. I’ve got no idea who I’m going to select, so there’ll be a few surprises there as well, and we’ll go up there and give it our best shot.”

Whether the Highlanders will be able to produce their best efforts in a bid to upset the Blues remains to be seen following two weeks of underwhelming performances against Australian opposition.

A week prior to the Rebels loss, the Highlanders succumbed to a dismal 32-20 defeat at the hands of the Waratahs in Dunedin.

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Those results, coupled with injuries and unavailabilities all throughout their roster, leaves the Highlanders in dire straits heading into the opening round of the playoffs.

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It’s for that reason that Brown implored his squad to rediscover their mojo with less than a week until their season goes on the line.

“We live to fight another day, but we’ve got to find Highlanders footy, and we’ve got to find that quickly if we’re going to do anything in the playoffs,” he said.

“I think in parts of that game [against the Rebels], especially early on, we were unstoppable, but we just didn’t score enough points when we had all that time inside the 22.

“We’ve just got to be better there, and then when the game gets hard, we’ve got to be a bit mentally tougher than we are at the moment.

“I wish we were playing better rugby. I wish we were enjoying our rugby more as a rugby team. I don’t know what the word is, but we’re not quite on top of our game, and we’ve got to find it in six days’ time.”

Smith doubled down on Brown’s calls for improvement as pinpointed his team’s failure to capitalise on a strong start and lack of execution with ball in hand as key reasons behind their loss to the Rebels.

“We knew that we were up against a really good team today, and we knew that there were plenty opportunities for us on attack if we got it right, and I think that showed out in that first 30 minutes, but they came good in that third quarter,” Smith said.

“We took the game back a little bit, we won some penalties, but we just missed some key moments that really got that belief in their game back.

“I think if we nailed some key moments early in that second half, we could have really put the pressure back on them, and we weren’t able to do that.

“I thought our bench, again, came on and added something, which has been a strength for us, but I think today they were just a bit more clinical and their pounce ability at the end caught us.

“We couldn’t come home strong enough, but we showed really good stuff there.

“Some of the plans that we put in place during the week to score points was there, and we probably threw away two or three tries through skill errors or just not respecting the ball.”

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In saying that, Smith refused to rule out the prospect of what would be a monumental boil over at Eden Park, where he said his side would have to be fearless in a rematch of last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final.

“I think, for us, it’s about getting really clear on how we’re going to try and stop the Blues,” the Highlanders captain said of how they plan to stun the Blues.

“They’ve got weapons across the park, but it’s going out there fearless, we’re in, going to Eden Park with a real edge.

“One thing we’ve got lucky about is we played a final there last year, so, for a few of us, it’ll be a same kind of feeling. We were kind of underdogs last year, so it’s going up there with total belief.

“We’ve probably got to dump this game pretty quickly, and turn all our focus and all our energy is just about Saturday night at Eden Park.

“Obviously I’m pretty gutted right now, but talking about being up in Auckland next Saturday gets me pretty excited, and I think once the boys land back in New Zealand, that’s got to be our sole focus.

“Come Saturday night, have no fear, let’s play, and we’ll give the Blues everything we’ve got.”

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