Best needed from Highlanders

Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody monitors a training session at the University Oval this week....
Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody monitors a training session at the University Oval this week. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
All the Highlanders need to be tonight is absolutely perfect.

Simple, eh.

That might seem a little unfair — not to mention completely impossible — but most would agree the Highlanders need to find something special if they are to beat the Brumbies in the Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal in Canberra.

And that is totally fine. You absolutely should need to produce your best at this stage of the season, and there is rightly an expectation the Highlanders will lift immensely to challenge the powerful Australians.

It is hardly David against Goliath but it certainly shapes as a challenging task.

The Brumbies are a good team, packed with power and pizzazz, and they are extremely tough to beat at home.

It has been a respectable season for the Highlanders, barring a couple of very poor performances, but the consensus is they are heavy underdogs heading into this game.

"It’s a tag that the Highlanders hold pretty well," coach Clarke Dermody said with a wry smile this week.

"We haven’t really mentioned that too much to the boys. It’s more about playing the best we can."

The Highlanders have been playing reasonably well in recent weeks, and it should not be forgotten they gave the Brumbies a decent crack in their clash in Dunedin.

That was a while ago and was only so relevant, especially as it had been in Dunedin, Dermody said.

"Both teams are playing better than when we played over here.

"Canberra is a tough place to win. They’re a team that have played really well this year.

"We’re going to Canberra and all we can do is what we can do. We’re happy with where we are at the moment, and we’re looking forward to it."

Props Ethan de Groot and Jermaine Ainsley and locks Mitch Dunshea and Fabian Holland can expect demanding shifts for the Highlanders as the Brumbies apply heat in the set piece.

No 8 Billy Harmon, set to head to Japan when the season ends, will likewise have his hands full with a relentless pack.

The Brumbies will seek to apply plenty of pressure at the breakdown then use their sizzling pace out wide to counter-attack.

It is a dangerous team that can squeeze the life out of you or beat you with speed, and the Highlanders will simply not be able to make many mistakes tonight.

One area of interest could be discipline. The Brumbies have a tendency to give away penalties — the referee tonight is Angus Gardner — and they will get punished if they are within the range of super boot Cameron Millar.

The return of powerful centre Tanielu Tele’a is a major boost for the Highlanders, who do have some sparkle out wide if they get on the front foot.

This is also the sort of game in which halfback Folau Fakatava gets a golden opportunity to prove he must be an All Black again.

The Brumbies have won three straight against the Highlanders — interestingly, that streak followed six consecutive wins for the New Zealanders — and this is just the second playoff meeting between the sides since the Highlanders won 15-9 in a tight quarterfinal in 2016.

Australia has some lovely spots but the Highlanders have won just one of their past nine games across the Tasman, and their last outing in the sunshine was a shocking 31-0 loss to the Reds.

Whatever happens tonight, the Highlanders are a part of history. With the Rebels being shut down and Super Rugby set to have just 11 teams next year and perhaps beyond, the playoff structure will change, and these could be the last quarterfinals.

Super Rugby quarterfinal

Canberra, 9.35pm

Highlanders: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Cameron Millar, Folau Fakatava, Billy Harmon (co-captain), Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Fabian Holland, Mitch Dunshea, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot (co-captain). Reserves: Jack Taylor, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Max Hicks, Nikora Broughton, James Arscott, Jake Te Hiwi, Finn Hurley.

Brumbies: Tom Wright, Andy Muirhead, Len Ikitau, Tamati Tua, Corey Toole, Noah Lolesio, Ryan Lonergan, Charlie Cale, Jahrome Brown, Rob Valetini, Tom Hooper, Darcy Swain, Allan Alaalatoa (captain), Billy Pollard, Harry Vella. Reserves: Liam Bowron, Rhys van Nek, Sosefo Kautai, Nick Frost, Luke Reimer, Harrison Goddard, Jack Debreczeni, Ollie Sapsford.