The Highlanders are prepared to play without much ball if that’s what it takes to overcome the power-packed NSW Waratahs in their Super Rugby semi-final in Sydney.
Co-captain Ben Smith expects possession could be in short supply against the defending champions on Saturday, although that won’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Season statistics show the Waratahs have kicked less than any other team and also give away the fewest turnovers – both of which add to their dominance of possession in most games.
Conversely, the Highlanders are among the most kick-happy of sides, often content to defend for long periods before striking quickly off turnovers through the likes of try-scoring ace Waisake Naholo or their two All Black Smiths – Ben and halfback Aaron.
Ben Smith stopped short of calling the Waratahs predictable but said his team were fully prepared for a busy night’s defence.
“You never know what they might do going into a playoff game but we’re pretty sure they’ll back themselves and their running game,” Smith told NZ Newswire.
“The way they play, they get a lot of momentum off their big runners and they have got a huge pack. Stopping them there will be a big one this weekend and, obviously, they’ve got some skilful backs off the back of that.”
That skill level dropped a notch when Wallaby Kurtley Beale was ruled out with a quadriceps injury.
The Highlanders suffered their own scare at training on Thursday when five-eighth Lima Sopoaga limped off apparently favouring his knee.
He was to be assessed again on Friday on arrival in Sydney.
The Highlanders have won just two of their past 16 games in Australia and their three most-recent visits to Sydney have resulted in losses by 28, 26 and 18 points.
However, Smith believes they are playing at a higher level than at any stage during his six-year tenure.
Interest in the team had escalated this week before their departure from Dunedin, he said, comparing it to the period early in Super Rugby when the Highlanders regularly reached semi-finals and qualified for their only final – in 1999.
“I remember they did well when I was a teenager. Those were good times and I think everyone’s happy we’re back in playoff rugby again.”