Highlanders’ unfancied pack ready to shine

The defending champion Highlanders will again rely on a pack, short on big names, something new co-captain Shane Christie sees as a strength.

Christie says it’s no different from last year, when the unfancied franchise from the south claimed their first Super Rugby title.

“We like it that way,” the Tasman flanker said on Thursday .

“We have heaps of boys who just work hard for each other and enjoy playing footy and love Dunedin.

“It’s probably why we’ve been successful the last couple of years and it’s no change this year.”

With No.8 Nasi Manu’s departure for Scotland, Christie has been give the co-captaincy along with incumbent Ben Smith, one of five All Blacks in the Highlanders’ backline.

There’s some added motivation that comes with the honour, but the 30-year-old says it hasn’t changed his style.

“It’s a fun team and it’s enjoyable to lead,” he said.

“I’ll prepare and do my best, and try to help the other boys.”

The Highlanders begin their defence against the Blues in Auckland on Friday night after a pre-season that included a loss to French club Racing 92, a draw with the Crusaders and victory over the NSW Waratahs.

Christie said it was a good build-up, adding that being defending champions wouldn’t change the players’ mindset.

It was still about preparing well, working hard and sticking to the game plan.

The fact that bookmakers have put the Highlanders down the order in terms of favourites didn’t faze Christie or his teammates.

“It doesn’t worry us – don’t even think about it,” he said.

“It’s just the way it is.”

After a limp 2015, the Blues go into the new campaign with three pre-season wins under new coach Tana Umaga, including beating the Chiefs after skipper Jerome Kaino was red-carded for a punch.

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph rates the clash at Eden Park as the most-anticipated game of the weekend.

“I have to applaud Tana’s group,” he said.

“Last week especially, when they were down to 14 men, they showed some real mettle. That’s been missing in Blues sides, so it’s going to be a tough one.”

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