Highlanders' crucial match put in perspective

Highlanders co-captain Luke Whitelock is back from a calf complaint and is hoping to make an...
Highlanders co-captain Luke Whitelock is back from a calf complaint and is hoping to make an impact from the bench in tonight’s match against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium.PHOTO GERARD O’BRIEN
The Highlanders are drawing inspiration from an unusual source this week - a comedian.

Not that there is anything amusing about the situation the Highlanders find themselves in after nine rounds.

They have not posted a win since week two of the competition and are one spot above last place in the combined competition standings.

They desperately need a win against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium tonight. And there is the added pressure of playing for the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy. The Highlanders have held on to it since 2012.

It is a lot of responsibility but funny man and mental health advocate Mike King helped put their predicament into perspective.

He spoke to the team for about an hour on Thursday and shared the story of his own personal battles and the value of being able to talk openly.

The message certainly resonated with Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger.

Although he had some supportive coaches during his playing career, the former All Black said the prevailing message was to "harden up".

"There probably wasn't as much awareness [in my playing days]."

Not so these days. King has been working his way around all the franchises "and just talking to young men about opening up and encouraging people to talk about any issues".

"We think he is doing a fantastic job.

"If you talk and share problems then often it opens up the support network."

King's message has dovetailed nicely into what the camp has been focusing on this week. Mauger has been urging the team to believe in itself more and take control during the critical moments.

To help the Highlanders achieve that, the group welcomes back two talented campaigners.

All Black halfback Aaron Smith has made a quicker than expected recovery and will start from the bench.

He sprained his ankle in round six and was expected to be sidelined for 4-6 weeks.

Luke Whitelock missed last week's match with a calf injury but is back and is also starting from the bench.

Smith and Whitelock might be able to get the Highlanders over the hump in the final stages.

It is an area where the team has struggled. Mauger felt his side was arguably the best performed side in the opening 20 minutes of games in the competition.

"We are scoring more points than anybody and conceding less than anybody," he said.

"So it is not so much a matter of how we are starting games, it is more a matter of how we are controlling those middle parts and giving ourselves an opportunity to set up a big finish.

"We feel, with both of those guys, their experience coming off the bench towards the back end of the game is going to be really critical."

It is a "must win". Mauger's words.

"There is a lot of motivation for us internally because ... we are really committed to making sure we put a good performance in for ourselves, for our fans and for the memory of Gordon Hunter as well."

There are just two changes to the starting XV. All Black forward Jackson Hemopo returns at lock, and Sio Tomkinson takes the place of Rob Thompson, who is unavailable for family reasons this week.

The Blues have made one change to the side which was defeated 33-29 by the Chiefs. Prop Sione Mafileo will start ahead of Ofa Tuungafasi. The game will be special for veteran hooker James Parsons. He will bring up his 100th game for the Blues.

He joins Keven Mealamu (164), Jerome Kaino (139), Tony Woodcock (137), Ali Williams (102) and John Afoa (101) as the only players to reach the milestone for the team.

The Blues have never beaten the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Super Rugby

Dunedin, 7.35pm

Highlanders: Ben Smith, Matt Faddes, Sio Tomkinson, Tei Walden, Tevita Li, Josh Ioane, Kayne Hammington, Elliot Dixon, James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Luke Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Bryn Gatland, Thomas Umaga-Jensen. 

Blues: Melani Nanai, Caleb Clarke, TJ Faiane, Ma’a Nonu, Rieko Ioane, Otere Black, Jonathan Ruru; Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Patrick Tuipulotu (c), Sione Mafileo, James Parsons, Karl Tu’inukuafe. Reserves: Leni Apisai, Alex Hodgman, Ofa Tuungafasi, Josh Goodhue, Jed Brown, Sam Nock, Harry Plummer, Matt Duffie.

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