The Highlanders should have the tactical superiority to overcome the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
All season the Highlanders have embraced a style of rugby that appears well suited to success in the playoff stage.
With Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga efficiently running proceedings from the halfback channel, the Highlanders have executed a strong contestable kicking game that has reaped plenty of rewards.
By winning field position and pouncing on opposition errors, the Highlanders have adopted a strategy that has provided counter-attacking opportunities for lethal backs such as Ben Smith, Matt Faddes and Malakai Fekitoa to threaten from broken play.
The Highlanders rank first in the competition for kicks caught and kicks from hand, but they’ve also racked up a fair number of clean breaks (178, rank five), which attests to their counter-attacking ability.
Last weekend, the Landers produced a typically clinical performance to deny the Chiefs and leapfrog their way into second spot in the New Zealand conference. During the second half in particular, they played the more intelligent brand of rugby, playing deep in Chiefs territory and using limited opportunities to great effect, while their defence was outstanding.
These are the exact ingredients for success in knockout rugby that they will be looking reproduce on Friday, with Liam Squire and Shane Christie starting in a reshuffled loose trio for the Highlanders.
The battle at the breakdown will certainly be an interesting one considering that David Pocock has recovered from a fractured eye socket, and he will provide the Brumbies with a considerable boost.
His ability to deny the Highlanders from recycling quick ball could be a decisive factor if the Brumbies are to remain competitive in the clash, and this really is where the hosts’ hopes will lie.
However, with a settled and dangerous backline, and an astute kicking game, the Highlanders should be backed to come out on top in Canberra.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Brumbies 12, Highlanders 8
In Canberra: Brumbies 8, Highlanders 2
STATS AND FACTS
– The Brumbies have won seven of their last nine games against the Highlanders, although they scored only 10 points against them in an away loss to the New Zealand side in round 10 this season.
– The Highlanders will be searching for back-to-back wins against the Brumbies for the first time since 2006 after snatching a low-scoring victory in their last encounter.
– The Brumbies have won their last four games at home, outscoring their opponents by a combined 156-45, although they’ve won just one of their last four home games against New Zealand opponents.
– The Brumbies have averaged 17 minutes and 28 seconds in possession per game this season, the second most of any team and the most of any team that has made it through to the post-season.
– Lima Sopoaga has kicked 27 penalty goals so far this season (the equal most of any player) on his way to 177 points, only seven behind competition-leader Beauden Barrett (184).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Brumbies||Christian Leali'ifano (165)||Stephen Moore (7)||Aidan Toua (956)||Christian Leali'ifano, Jarrad Butler (103)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga||Matt Faddes (9)||Ben Smith (927)||Tom Franklin (122)|
Brumbies – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Leali'ifano (c), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Blake Enever, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (c) 1 Scott Sio.
Subs (one to be omitted): 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 James Dargaville, 24 Lausii Taliauli.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Luke Whitelock, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Te Aihe Toma, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Rob Thompson.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ben O´Keeffe (New Zealand), Nic Berry (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images