Highlanders' game against Force to be season-defining

Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Clarke Dermody will not attempt to play down the significance of this week.

The Highlanders assistant coach freely admits Friday night’s match against the Force will be season-defining.

The team is back in Dunedin, perhaps a little more weary, although certainly in a better position than it was when it left three weeks ago.

Wins over the Fijian Drua and Reds over the past two weeks have propelled the Highlanders into Super Rugby Pacific’s top eight.

They remain in a scrap for that final playoff spot.

But with three weeks to go, they still have games against the two teams they are in that scrap with — the Force and the Rebels.

That essentially makes those games doubly important.

Not only are they opportunities for the Highlanders to win points, they can also deprive their closest competition of points.

"Definitely the job’s not done," Dermody said.

"We understand the position we put ourselves in. We started the season pretty slowly by our standards. Now we’ve given ourselves a chance.

"We’ve still got to play the Force and the Rebels, both teams fighting with us for that spot.

"We understand how big the game is in the context of our season. It’s a matter of making sure we get this week right."

Perhaps, after that slow start, it seems ridiculous that the Highlanders are even in with a chance.

The top-eight playoff format, in a 12-team competition, has received plenty of criticism.

However, the Highlanders were not the ones that made the system, and they are taking full advantage of it.

"It’s a funny format," Dermody said.

"I know it’s been talked about a lot - top eight, and it shouldn’t be this or it shouldn’t be that.

"But it is what it is. We’ve given ourselves a chance. If we do a good job and get to the top eight, we’ll see what happens from there.

"We’re just playing the cards we get dealt."

Getting the week right will be key.

While the Highlanders are back home, they have also just come off three weeks on the road — all of which involved lengthy flights and time-zone adjustments.

Being home certainly brings its comforts, although recovering from the travel remains a priority.

"They’re all pretty good pros, so it’s about being smart the first couple of days after we travel - lightening the load on them, making sure their bodies are all ready to go again then not overloading them with too much information.

"Sleep’s really important and making sure they get their diet right. The performance part doesn’t come until the end of the week."

The Force is coming off a tough loss to the Crusaders, having copped the backlash after a poor performance from the perennial powerhouses the week before.

Before that, the Force had shown itself to be a tough opponent, notably coming within a whisker of beating a lethal Blues team two weeks ago.

Dermody expected as much, identifying the lineout as a danger area.

"In my area, obviously I know [Force assistant coach] Paul Tito. He’s over there doing the lineout.

"They’ve got the best lineout defence in the competition. They’ll be trying to starve us of possession.

"They’re pretty gritty as well. Once they’re in games, they stay in them."

Dermody confirmed loose forward Christian Lio-Willie would miss the remainder of the season, needing surgery after a high ankle sprain two weeks ago against the Drua.

Hooker Liam Coltman would also have a light week after picking up an ankle injury.

jeff.cheshire@odt.co.nz

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