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‘Treated as playoff games’: Why the Highlanders are ready for must-win Blues clash

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

When the full-time siren sounded at Forsyth Barr Stadium last Friday, Highlanders fans in Dunedin would’ve let out a collective sigh of relief.

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The Highlanders lived to fight another day in Super Rugby Pacific.

Moments earlier, the Dunedin-based franchise were trailing the Queensland Reds 28-30 with just five minutes to play – the deficit left their season hanging in the balance.

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But replacement Folau Fakatava, who is the heir apparent to legendary halfback Aaron Smith, produced a moment of individual brilliance to save the day for the Highlanders.

Spotting a gap down the short side, Fakatava sliced through tackle attempts from winger Mac Grealy and Wallaby Jock Campbell, and jotted the ball down in front of the Zoo with 28 seconds to play.

The Highlanders were victorious – and a Freddie Burns conversion from the right sideline was the icing on the cake.

It was their second win a row, and saw the Highlanders occupy eighth spot on the ladder heading into the final round of the season.

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Their destiny is in their hands.

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Ahead of their clash with the Blues on Friday, the equation is simple: win, and they quality for the playoffs. But if they lose, other results will need to fall their way.

It’s up to them.

Playmaker Mitch Hunt has revealed the secret to the Highlanders’ success over the last fortnight, and affirmed that they’re going “to win” in round 15.

“The positive heading into this week has probably been our last two weeks,” Hunt told RugbyPass.

“With the nature of our season and where we’ve sort of left ourselves, the last two weeks were really… treated as playoff games.

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“We’ve sort of been in a little bit of that mindset for the last couple of weeks.

“The way our last two games finished, traditionally we may have lost tight games like that as the Landers over the last few years.

“I think we take some great confidence out of knowing that in those tight games, the last few weeks we’ve been able to finish. That’s been great, we’ve treated them like finals.

“If we win we go through, if we lose there’s still a chance but then it relies on everyone else.

“We want to take control of our own destiny and we’re going up there to win, as tough as it may be heading up to Auckland.”

Hunt was the Highlanders’ first-choice flyhalf for most of this season, but was dropped in favour of Freddie Burns earlier this month.

But back in the starting side, the 27-year-old found his groove playing out the back against the Reds in the No. 15 jersey.

With more time and space, Hunt wreaked havoc with the ball in hand.

“At fullback, not that 10 is but sometimes you can get a bit stuck in controlling the game at 10 depending on the shape that your team plays… I probably felt a little bit stuck through maybe the start of the year at 10,” Hunt added.

“Fullback allows you to roam a little bit, you get a bit more hands on the ball in the wider channels or even have those counter attacks.

“It’s a nice wee change up sometimes and I really enjoy getting back there and getting (my) hands on the ball.”

The match between the Highlanders and Blues is set to get underway at 7.05pm NZST at Auckland’s Eden Park on Friday.

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