Co-captain Shane Christie says back-to-back Super Rugby wins in Australia have proven the Highlanders’ adaptability.
The defending champions were rewarded with two days off following their 27-3 win over the Rebels in Melbourne last weekend, and Christie says they’re refreshed, fit and firing for Friday’s match against the Force in Dunedin.
Christie said the wins in Australia, kick-started by a 30-26 victory over the NSW Waratahs, showed the Highlanders were a team which could adapt to different styles of play.
“The combinations are gelling and the players who stepped in did well.”
Christie has been in scintillating form this season, accumulating 62 tackles to date – second only to the Force’s Matt Hodgson (79 tackles) in the competition.
But he’ll be making his impact on Friday off the bench, making way for Dan Pryor as Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph tweaks his starting line-up to feature a fresh locking combination and rotation in the loose forwards.
Alex Ainley and Tom Franklin will start in the middle row of the scrum for the second time this season, with regular lock Joe Wheeler moving to the bench.
Elliot Dixon, who was outstanding against the Waratahs, replaces Luke Whitelock at blindside.
Christie said there was a key plus to the growing depth in the Highlanders loose forwards, especially when facing a short turnaround as the side does on Friday.
“Jamie is able to rotate us to keep us fresh for the upcoming games, so it’s a real benefit for us.”
The southerners have looked sharp this season, scoring 16 tries so far this season, joint third alongside the Hurricanes and Crusaders.
Statistically, they are ranked within the top five in clean breaks (49), tries scored (16) and tackle success (85.6 per cent), illustrating key consistencies in attack and defence.
In contrast, in their last two games the Force have scored just 16 points and conceded 94 in losses to the Hurricanes (6-41) and the Chiefs (10-53), and sit second-last in the Australian conference.
The Highlanders, with four wins and one loss, sit second in the New Zealand conference, just one point behind the Chiefs.