Smith returns in strong line-up to meet Brumbies

The Highlanders have back-up plans if the Australian teams cannot enter New Zealand for Super...
Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith is back for the Brumbies clash. Photo: Getty Images
The bonus point has certainly come up in conversation.

But the rolling maul and how to combat it has been higher on the agenda for the Highlanders this week.

The Dunedin-based team has won all four games in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman and has given itself an excellent chance of making the final.

The Highlanders have to get past the Brumbies in Canberra first. It has been a tough venue for them and they are not expecting it to be any different tomorrow night.

They have named a strong side side for the encounter, featuring the return of All Black halfback Aaron Smith.

He skipped the 59-23 win against the Waratahs in Dunedin to freshen up.

In the other change to the starting side, Hugh Renton replaces James Lentjes on the blindside.

Smith’s presence will lift the side. His ability to get the ball wide quickly may come in very handy late in the game.

Plan A for is to stay patient, get into a position to win the game and then chase a bonus point.

They may or may not end up needing it, depending on the results of the other games.

But the Blues and the Crusaders are also eyeing up a finals berth and arguably have an easier pathway.

The game feels very much like a semifinal.

"It certainly has that big-game vibe about it," Smith said.

"With all the unknowns it is a little hard to predict or prepare for what-ifs, it is just about winning this game."

That might not be enough, though.

Potentially, the Highlanders could go through the round-robin unbeaten but still miss a spot in the final. The bonus point would greatly enhance their prospects.

But before they can chase it they will have to earn the opportunity. And that is likely to involve plenty of hard slog up front.

"We’ve got to be real. We’re going to Canberra, it is a very tough place to play and the Brumbies love playing at home."

Smith is expecting wet conditions, which are mostly foreign to the Highlanders, who play half their games under the roof on a dry track at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

"That is something we’ve tried to prepare for — training outside all week with wet balls and getting ready for that kind of stuff.

"But we are just going to go out there and try to build on the momentum we’ve built in the last four weeks."

Defence will be key to gain a bonus point. The franchise did some soul searching following Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The Highlanders were last for tackle percentage and have worked hard to improve in that area.

The Brumbies registered a 12-10 win against the Hurricanes last weekend and they used the driving maul to good effect.

Given the conditions are likely to suit that strategy again, Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody expects a stern examination up front.

"It has been a strength of the Brumbies, even when I was playing. It is something that is part of their DNA," Dermody said.

"It is an area that we have really grown in during the last eight weeks. "I feel like everything is in place for that and its up to the mindset and the accuracy of the players."

Veteran hooker Liam Coltman will be making his 128th appearance and will overtake Anton Oliver as the team’s the most capped hooker.

Highlanders v Brumbies, Canberra, tomorrow, 9.45pm

Highlanders: Josh Ioane, Sio Tomkinson, Michael Collins, Scott Gregory, Jona Nareki, Mitch Hunt, Aaron Smith, Kazuki Himeno, Billy Harmon, Hugh Renton, Pari Pari Parkinson,  Bryn Evans, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone, Josh Hohneck, Josh Dickson, James Lentjes, Kayne Hammington, Sam Gilbert, Teariki Ben-Nicholas.

Brumbies: Tom Banks, Tom Wright, Len Ikitau, Irae Simone, Mack Hansen, Bayley Kuenzle, Nic White, Henry Stowers, Rory Scott,  Rob Valetini, Nick Frost,  Darcy Swain, Allan Alaalatoa, Lachlan Lonergan, Scott Sio. Reserves: Billy Pollard, Harry Lloyd, Tom Ross, Tom Hooper, Luke Reimer, Ryan Lonergan, Reesjan Pasitoa, Solomone Kata.

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