Nothing taken for granted as playoff race tightens

Lima Sopoaga.
Lima Sopoaga.
As strange as it may seem, tonight’s game has playoff implications for both the Highlanders and the Western Force.

The Highlanders are riding a seven-game winning streak as they continue to hold on to fourth spot  in  Super Rugby’s New Zealand conference, just five points ahead of the Blues.

Form suggests they should account for the Force in Perth on their stop-over game on the way home from South Africa, but the Force has plenty to play for, as well.

Its 16-6 win over the Jaguares in Argentina last weekend took it to 13 competition points, just six behind the Australian conference-leading Brumbies.

The Reds are on 16 points but have played an extra game, and the Waratahs have 14.

All have three wins and, while that illustrates how poor the Australian teams have been this year, one of them is guaranteed a playoff spot.

With five games remaining, a win over the Highlanders would go a long way towards closing that gap for the Force.

Tevita Li.
Tevita Li.
Conversely, a loss for the Highlanders, who have four games left, could prove detrimental to their chances.

Only four New Zealand sides can progress to the quarterfinals.

A loss would give the Blues the chance to close the five-point gap at the bottom of the conference table.

Highlanders coach Tony Brown said it was something not lost on the team.

"I think our team’s well aware of the desperation the Force are going to be playing with. They’re only six points off being first in the Australian conference.

"They’re playing at home and playing for their lives in this competition.

"So the team’s well aware of how hard its going to be.

"We won’t be taking anything for granted."

The Force is a side the Highlanders have historically struggled with. Although they have won the last two encounters between the teams, the Highlanders’ most recent win before that was in 2007 — when they got home 8-7.

They lost six straight between 2008 and 2014 (the teams did not meet in 2012),  a streak which included the original green jersey game at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2011.

That is all history though and this team has shown in recent weeks it can pull out unlikely wins, snatching two late victories in South Africa.

While those wins may have been scratchy, Brown was happy the team had found a way to get over the line.

"I’d rather find a way to win than a way to lose,’’ Brown said.

"So from our point of view, we’re happy with how we’re finishing games and that we’re able to find a way to win.

"The leadership that the guys are showing and the impact the guys are having off the bench has got us home in those last two games.

"Playing away from home is never easy and, if you can win those games away from home, that can set up your playoff run."

The Highlanders will be without right winger Waisake Naholo, who was suspended for one week after being shown a red card last week against the Bulls.

Tevita Li comes into the side to replace him, although he will on the left wing meaning  Patrick Osborne shifts to the right.

Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman and Daniel Lienert-Brown come back to form the starting front-row.

Tom Franklin will make his 50th appearance for the team at lock.

There is plenty of fire power on the bench, which could prove pivotal in the second half.

Lima Sopoaga looks set to make his first appearance since March 11 and will probably come off the bench for Marty Banks.

Aaron Smith and Rob Thompson are also options to inject energy later in the game.

 

Highlanders v Force Perth, 9.45pm, Saturday

Highlanders: Matt Faddes, Patrick Osborne, Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Tevita Li, Marty Banks, Kayne Hammington, Elliot Dixon (co-c), Dillon Hunt, Gareth Evans, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon (co-c), Aki Seiuli, Guy Millar, Joe Wheeler, Jackson Hemopo, Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Rob Thompson.

Force: Luke Morahan, Semisi Masirewa, Curtis Rona, Bill Meakes (c), Alex Newsome, Peter Grant, Ian Prior, Richard Hardwick, Brynard Stander, Ross Haylett-Petty, Adam Coleman, Richie Arnold, Jermaine Ainsley, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Pek Cowan. Reserves: Anaru Rangi, Francois van Wyk, Tetera Faulkner, Matt Philip, Lewis Carmichael, Isireli Naisarani, Michael Ruru, James Verity-Amm.

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