Which version of the Highlanders will front up?

First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga spins out a pass during a Highlanders training session at Coogee...
First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga spins out a pass during a Highlanders training session at Coogee Oval in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Getty Imeages
The serious stuff arrives tonight for the Highlanders and the question is: which Highlanders side is going to turn up?

It has been a guess all season, and for their sake it had better be a side which is mentally and physically ready for what will be a gunfight against the Waratahs in Sydney tonight.

The Highlanders this season have been far from consistent.

They started well with three good wins, all at home, but since then the side has been all over the place. At one stage they won another three in a row — over the Brumbies, Blues and Bulls — but that run was derailed thanks to a thumping by the Sharks.

The side lost six games in the regular season, and one thing is for sure about the team — when it loses, it loses  by a big margin.

Only the loss against the Chiefs, 27-22 way back on Good Friday, was a close one. The other five defeats have been decisive,  with the Highlanders a distant second. A good thumping does little for confidence, and although the Highlanders have come back well in the next games, there is that fear  that they can be a house of cards that comes tumbling down too soon.

One can never doubt the endeavour and passion among the Highlanders. That is part of their DNA. They will never die wondering and will work hard for each other.

But at this level, guts and pride can only go so far. Accuracy and ruthlessness are far more valuable commodities.

The Highlanders have perhaps only reached the desired level once this season, and that was the win over the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium at the start of June.

That night the side pulled away in the second half, ran some nice angles, was rugged in defence and had the energy to easily win the match 30-14.

Unfortunately for the side, the test window was immediately after that game, and the good form had long since left the building when the Highlanders came back and played in Fiji. In Suva the side played probably its worse 40 minutes of its history.

The biggest concern over the past three games is defence.

The side has conceded 127 points in 240 minutes — including 15 tries — and no matter how much the leakage is downplayed by the coaches, it is worrying.

The defence has been too flimsy, not aggressive enough and needs a rapid improvement.

The Highlanders need to get better line speed, be more accurate and dominant in the tackle, and not back down to anyone.

They do not have a bad record against the Waratahs, having beaten them in 2015 in a semifinal in their run to the title.

The side must start well and get their key men — the two Smiths, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire and other loose forwards — into the game early on, and keep the Waratahs on the back foot.

There is a good omen — well, sort of.

Referee Angus Gardner was the official in charge of the Highlanders’ last playoff match in Australia — in 2016, when they beat the Brumbies.

But he was also in charge in last year’s quarterfinal for the Highlanders, when they were soundly beaten by the Crusaders.

Fine weather is forecast for Sydney today.


Super Rugby playoff
Sydney, today, 10.05pm

Highlanders: Ben Smith (captain), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Jackson Hemopo, Tom Franklin, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Aki Seiuli, Kalolo Tuiloma, Shannon Frizell, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Josh Ioane, Matt Faddes.

Waratahs: Israel Folau, Alex Newsome, Curtis Rona, Kurtley Beale, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Bernard Foley (captain), Nick Phipps, Michael Wells, Will Miller, Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Jed Holloway, Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tom Robertson. Reserves: Tolu Latu, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Paddy Ryan, Tom Staniforth, Brad Wilkin, Jake Gordon, Cam Clark, Bryce Hegarty.

Referee: Angus Gardner

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