Highlanders bolster team for Fijian Drua game

The Highlanders will get some handy reinforcements as they seek to rescue a disappointing season.

Captain Aaron Smith and No8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u will join the team in Suva for the clash against the Fijian Drua on Saturday.

Both missed Sunday’s loss to the Brumbies in Melbourne — Smith as he was recovering from Covid, and Mikaele-Tu’u as he was given a week off to get fully fit after tweaking a hamstring against the Hurricanes.

They will be welcome additions to the squad as it prepares for a game that has plenty riding on it.

At 1-8 and 10th position, the Highlanders are not setting Super Rugby Pacific on fire, but they are remarkably just four points out of the playoffs thanks to a system that, rightly or wrongly, gives eight teams an equal chance of winning the title.

The Fijian Drua are one place and three points behind the Highlanders, so this is one of those eight-point games.

"It’s going to be a different challenge," Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody said yesterday.

"Facing the Drua in Fiji will be awesome. It’s their one and only game at home this year, so I think we can expect it to be pretty hostile, and the crowd will be pumping."

The Drua have, not unexpectedly, struggled in their debut season, but they had displayed glimpses of their ability and attacking threat, Dermody said.

"Their physicality, their intensity — you can’t switch off or they could score tries pretty quickly.

The Highlanders had not had a great deal of time to digest Sunday’s 28-17 loss to the Brumbies.

But the themes were clear, Dermody acknowledged.

"We just didn’t really execute in that first 20 minutes. We put ourselves under pressure and the Brumbies kicked really well and kept us in our 22m.

"For whatever reason, we didn’t really match their intensity in the first quarter, and their ball-carriers were all getting over the gainline.

"We’d highlighted those guys — Valetini, Scott Sio, Pete Samu — but it took us a long time to stop them.

"You can’t give teams head starts at this level, especially a team like the Brumbies. If you allow them to play their game, they can be pretty clinical."

The Highlanders had to be up at 5am yesterday — though travel commitments denied them a chance to attend dawn service in Melbourne — to catch a flight to Sydney.

After a stopover, they were heading to Suva, where they were scheduled to arrive at 8pm.

They were the only New Zealand side to lose to Australian opposition at the weekend, and their season has threatened to fizzle out, but the Highlanders were staying positive, Dermody said.

"Everyone wants to win. Every week, we just try to make sure we get our preparation right.

"The boys always come in with a positive mind. They enjoy coming to work, and they’re always trying to get better.

"We just need to keep pushing them as much as we can — without breaking them."


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