Rugby: Tonight the score matters

It has been a tumultuous week off the field for rugby in Otago.

Talk of debts, liquidation, creditors, mismanagement, constitution has dominated. It has been all commerce and business, rather than lineouts and breakdowns.

Thank goodness, in some ways, the focus in Dunedin tonight will switch to 30 men chasing an oval ball round a green paddock.

The scoreboard will matter, not the balance sheet.

And it is not just any green paddock on which these men will be running around. It is Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Highlanders' new base.

The ground may overshadow events tonight but a win from the Highlanders would put a smile on the faces of southern rugby supporters, who have endured a tough week.

The Highlanders are clearly winning back some support. Last night, just 600 tickets remained unsold, meaning it is almost certain the new stadium will be full to its temporary capacity of 23,000.

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has made two changes to his side which beat the Chiefs last week.

Aaron Smith replaces Jimmy Cowan at halfback, after the All Black No 9 put on a disappointing performance in the opening match last weekend.

Outside Smith will also be a new boy, with Lima Sopoaga taking the place of Chris Noakes, who is still bothered by an ankle injury he picked up in the win against the Chiefs.

Colin Slade has convinced Joseph he is fit enough to get a spot on the bench and if he does get a run it will be his first in a Highlanders jersey since April last year.

Joseph said Slade just wanted to get on to the field.

"The key for him is to get some game time. He has played a lot of big games at this level so I'm not particularly worried about him being not being ready," Joseph said.

"James Haskell and Tamati Ellison got off a plane from Japan and were playing 24 hours later, so players at that level are used to getting up to speed quickly."

Slade had been troubled by a groin injury he picked up at the World Cup last year and then had a hernia operation. But he had moved well in training this week and his inclusion should be a boost to the side.

Joseph said Smith offered a different skill set than Cowan, which would suit the side better for this game.

Smith was quick around the ruck, read the game well and challenged people, which was needed against the Crusaders, Joseph said.

Cowan was not being demoted for a botched pass in last week's game which led to the Chiefs' only try.

"Those sort of things happen all the time. It was just a miscommunication on a move which we try sometimes."

Joseph said the meltdown of Otago rugby was not having a big impact on the Highlanders as there were not many Otago players in the side. But it was tough for players to be left in the cold and not know their future, Joseph said.

Playing under the roof against the Crusaders was exciting for the players, and he hoped the big crowd would get in behind the side.

The Crusaders, though, have been here before. They entered Carisbrook last year to a big crowd and proceeded to put 40-plus points on the Highlanders.

It should be closer tonight but the Highlanders - especially Sopoaga and Smith - have to be on their game if the team wants to make its debut in the new stadium a memorable one.


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