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'There's no easy games': Highlanders wary of Reds amid recent Australian success

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

They may have registered only their second win of the Super Rugby Pacific season, but the Highlanders haven’t got too carried away with themselves just yet.

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In the midst of a dire campaign, the Dunedin-based franchise achieved a rare victory last weekend when they beat the Fijian Drua 27-24 in front of a packed and boisterous crowd at ANZ National Stadium in Suva.

Now their attention has turned to the final leg of their overseas tour as they return to Australia two weeks after becoming the first New Zealand side fall short against a team from the other side of the Tasman.

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In the fortnight since their Super Round defeat to the Brumbies, the Australian teams have collectively picked up two further scalps over Kiwi sides as the Waratahs stunned the Crusaders and the Brumbies toppled the Hurricanes last weekend.

Elsewhere in the latest round of action, the Melbourne Rebels also overcame a staunch effort from Moana Pasifika, while the Western Force and Queensland Reds both finished within a score of the Blues and Chiefs in their respective matches on Friday.

The recent success and competitiveness of Australia’s franchises has breathed new life into Super Rugby Pacific as they have comfortably surpassed the pre-season expectations placed on them by fans and media alike.

The Highlanders, however, are fully aware of the threat their Australian counterparts pose, especially that of the Reds, who they face at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Friday.

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Coached by former Highlanders lock Brad Thorn, the fifth-placed Queenslanders stand as one of the two best Australian teams – alongside the Brumbies – and have come close twice to beating Kiwi opposition this season.

After surrendering a 17-0 lead against the Hurricanes to lose 30-17 in Melbourne two weeks ago, the Reds followed that up with a 27-25 home loss to the Chiefs.

In both matches, they showed their ability to foot it with New Zealand sides and enhanced the perception that Australian rugby has improved in leaps and bounds since last year’s ill-fated Super Rugby Trans-Tasman series.

As such, Highlanders first-five Mitch Hunt told media on Monday that his side – currently languishing in 10th place and two points astray from a playoffs spot – cannot afford to take the Reds, or any other Australian team, lightly.

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“There’s no easy games, despite what everyone else outside the environment seems to think or portray,” Hunt said.

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“There’s just no easy games. We’ve seen the Drua push the Kiwi sides already, the Brumbies have had two wins, and now the Waratahs getting a win over the Crusaders, [who are] perceived as one of the best in the comp, so if we’re off by a little about, these guys are going to take advantage of that.

“Obviously Australia want to prove something playing the Kiwi sides, prove that they can hold their own, and, if not, beat us, as they’ve already shown on the last couple occasions.

“We’re under no illusion that these games are easy and we’re going to roll over any of these teams, so our preparation has been at the highest level and, as we head into this week, that won’t be any different as well.”

Those comments were reinforced by Highlanders assistant coach Riki Flutey, who pinpointed the kicking game and set piece of the Brumbies and Reds as two examples of how the Australian outfits have improved over the past year.

“Looking at the Reds, Brumbies as well, their set piece is pretty dominant, as you guys would know as well. The kicking game, they’ve got an awesome kicking game. They vary their kicking game up a lot, so just those couple of things,” he said.

The set piece battle is of particular interest for veteran Highlanders prop Josh Hohneck, who echoed Flutey’s sentiments about the threat the Reds pose at scrum time.

The Reds engaged frequently with the Chiefs at the set piece, and although they were outdone by Clayton McMillan’s men, Hohneck said Thorn’s side have made the scrum a big part of their playing identity.

“They’ve got a pretty powerful set piece, so it’s been a big part of their game,” Hohneck said of the Reds, who will be without star prop Taniela Tupou due to a potentially season-ending calf injury.

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“Coming up against the Kiwi teams, we scrum maybe a little bit different, so there’s always going to be a little bit of a teething period there. Be interesting to see over the next couple of weeks how it all works out.”

In saying that, Hohneck made note that the set piece is also a strength for the Highlanders, which he said came to the fore in Saturday’s win over the Drua.

“I think scrums change within games, so you can go in with a plan and it doesn’t always work out,” he said.

“I think, on the weekend, we scrummed for long periods but two big packs were sort of locked out and the crowd got into it, but we’re sort of happy with the way the scrum came through.

“I think we pulled a penalty out at one stage that led to a try, and the rest of the scrums were pretty solid. The Reds probably try to be a little bit destructive early in the scrums, so we’ve just got to weather that storm and stay in it.”

Do that, and the Highlanders could well score a rare win in Brisbane – they have won only three out of 11 matches there since the beginning of Super Rugby – and keep their quarter-final hopes alive.

“We know if we win the next four games, we’ve got an opportunity to be in the playoffs,” Flutey said.

“We’re going to take lots of confidence out of the result and the performance, in terms of the boys sticking to the plan right through to the 80th minute from the Drua game. That confidence will hopefully take us into the Reds game.”

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