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Tony Brown's strategic tweak aimed to bring the best out of Highlanders star Aaron Smith

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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For the first time this Super Rugby Pacific season, Highlanders captain Aaron Smith won’t lead his side out onto the park by himself.

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Instead, Smith will share his leadership duties with former Highlanders skipper James Lentjes when the Dunedin-based franchise take on the Reds in Brisbane on Friday.

The pair have been named as co-captains for this week’s clash at Suncorp Stadium, a move that head coach Tony Brown says has been made to get the best out of his star halfback.

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In a year where the Highlanders have limped to two wins from 10 matches, Smith has struggled to find the form that has earned him the reputation as one of the greatest halfbacks in rugby history.

While it’s true that much of the Highlanders’ woes come down to lack the star power that they have enjoyed in years gone by, Smith’s troubles are also largely attributable to the burden of captaining the squad on his own.

It’s a task that, until this season, was one the 33-year-old had never taken on before in his 12 years with the Highlanders, as he had instead teamed up with departed hooker Ash Dixon as co-captain of the team in 2020 and 2021.

With Dixon now in Japan, Smith has taken on the role as sole captain of the franchise, but that has changed this weekend as he will be supported Lentjes as co-captain in Queensland this weekend.

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“Obviously Aaron’s only just come back into the team last week, so we just want to share the workload around the captaincy,” Brown said of the adjustment.

“Jim had an awesome impact on our team when he captained the team, so it’s just around sharing the workload and trying to get a better performance out of Aaron Smith.”

It’s the first time since Dixon’s exit that Smith has been accompanied by anyone in the skipper role, but it’s certainly not the first time Lentjes has taken on a leadership role with the Highlanders.

Named by former coach Aaron Mauger as captain for the pre-Covid Super Rugby season in 2020, Lentjes has stood as co-vice-captain alongside first-five Mitch Hunt this year.

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In matches where Smith hasn’t started this season, Lentjes and Hunt have combined to lead the Highlanders as co-captains, with the flanker even taking on the mantle as the side’s sole captain against the Brumbies in Melbourne a fortnight ago.

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It’s for that reason that Lentjes is at ease with taking on that leadership position as the Highlanders seek to provide Smith with more clarity in his game.

“I look at it more as I’m around the action around the forward pack and Aaron worries a bit more about the bigger picture stuff and how the backs are going,” Lentjes said.

“It’s sometimes easier for me to have the view on how we’re going as a forward pack, breakdown stuff, and that’s where I can influence and he can bring his energy into the backs, and we can both then talk about game scenarios and where we are on the scoreboard.”

The Highlanders hope that will enable them with the platform required to beat the Reds in a victory that would likely push them into a playoffs spot.

Brown knows that success won’t come easy against the Brad Thorn-coached outfit, though.

“I just think they play with the right attitude, they’re physical, they compete at the breakdown,” he said of the Queenslanders.

“I feel as though they play like Brad Thorn and the way that he attacked his rugby, so they’re always going to be a tough team to beat.”

As such, victory will only be achieved if there is an eradication of the weak defence that has plagued the Highlanders this season.

“I think, every game, we have a look at ourselves, forwards and backs, whatever it is, and there’s always just a couple of key moments in the game that have sort of let us down,” Lentjes said.

“I feel like we work really hard for our points, and sometimes we cough up soft points, so if we can eliminate that, I think we can start swinging things our way.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Brown as he called for widespread improvement from his players in all facets of the game.

“I just think just the execution of everything really, from our attack to try-scoring opportunities and also defensively, just being a lot better in every situation,” he said.

“Everyone’s trying hard, everyone’s trying to improve, so we’re just hoping [that] keeping consistent selections is going to help those guys get a little bit more belief and confidence in their ability.”

Kick-off for Friday’s match is scheduled for 7:45pm local time [9:45pm NZT].

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