Invigorated Highlanders have to ‘reset and go again’

Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Ethan de Groot hopes the Highlanders can be the bullies this weekend.

They will start as rank outsiders in the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy game against the rampant Blues at Eden Park tonight.

But this is a Highlanders team with a little bit of a buzz back after a dramatic upswing in their form, and confidence earned from three straight wins can go a long way to compensating for a relative disparity in star power.

"Getting the monkey off the back against the Force and then grinding out a win in Tonga really set us up for the Crusaders, and we probably got a bit of belief back in our campaign", de Groot said.

"But we know it’s going to be tough this weekend against the Blues. We’ve got to reset and go again.

"They should be good. They’ve got a pretty good side.

"They’re just a big team that try to bully their way through until they tighten up defences and spin it wide to their superstars.

"It’s going to be a big shift this weekend."

De Groot, who again captains the Highlanders in the absence of injured loose forward Billy Harmon, will lock horns with Blues prop Marcel Renata, making his 50th Super Rugby appearance.

The Blues might not have superstars in their tight five but they pack a sound scrum, and any parity they earn will be turned into points by their electric loosies and backs.

The Highlanders will need every man to the pump.

De Groot said he was comfortable with the leadership responsibilities and was getting plenty of support from the likes of Sean Withy, Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.

"I’ve been enjoying it. The boys have been getting around me. I’ve got a good leadership group and we do the job together.

"Guys like Withy and Timoci and Jacob, they’ve been really stepping up in that area."

It has been a slow-burn season for de Groot, as he missed the opening game with a knee niggle, lost some game time due to a head knock and sat out the Tongan trip so he could go duck-shooting and bank an All Blacks rest week.

(Shot lots, loves eating duck, if you were wondering.)

His form is kicking in at just the right time, and he even found time to embrace his inner halfback when he took a quick tap from a free kick against the Crusaders.

"I’m just sick of guys like Justin Marshall who complain about looking at scrums all the time, so I thought I better tap it", de Groot said with the merest hint of a smile.

The Highlanders would naturally like to beat the Blues to start a winning streak against New Zealand rivals.

Mainly, though, they just want to get their hands back on the Gordon Hunter trophy.

"Gordie was the first Highlanders coach, and he stood for all of our Highlanders values.

"We’ve got a lot of respect for him. I didn’t know the man personally, but there’s a lot of history in this club and that trophy means a lot to us and all the ex-players.

"If we can bring it home, it would be pretty special. He doesn’t belong in Auckland."

The Blues have won 10 of the past 11 clashes with the Highlanders. That is also their record this year — 10 wins from 11 games has them at the top of the table.

Their past eight wins have been by an average margin of 23 points, they make more carries, gain more metres and cross the gainline more often than any team, and their miserly average of 2.1 tries conceded per game is the best in Super Rugby.

Beating this team at Eden Park will be a Herculean challenge for the Highlanders, even if the Blues have signalled their confidence by resting three star players.

Super Rugby

Eden Park, 7.05pm today

Highlanders:  Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Jake Te Hiwi, Martin Bogado, Cameron Millar,  Folau Fakatava, Nikora Broughton, Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Fabian Holland, Mitch Dunshea, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot (captain). Reserves: Jack Taylor, Ayden Johnstone, Saula Ma’u, Will Tucker, Will Stodart, James Arscott, Sam Gilbert, Finn Hurley.

Blues:  Cole Forbes, AJ Lam, Bryce Heem, Corey Evans, Caleb Clarke, Harry Plummer, Sam Nock, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i (captain), Adrian Choat, Sam Darry, Laghlan McWhannell, Marcel Renata, Kurt Eklund, Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Reserves: Soane Vikena, Mason Tupaea, Angus Ta’avao, Josh Beehre, Cameron Suafoa, Taufa Funaki, Stephen Perofeta, Kade Banks.