The explosive return of Highlanders flyer Waisake Naholo has new Super Rugby leaders the Crusaders on edge ahead of Friday’s southern derby.
Last week’s 38-5 thrashing of Queensland lifted the Crusaders past the Chiefs on points differential atop an overall table dominated by Kiwi sides.
The defending champion Highlanders are third and the Hurricanes fourth on points accrued although none can match the form of the Crusaders, who have won eight games on the trot.
Assistant coach Tabai Matson can’t deny his team are playing well but he believes they will be taken into deep waters by a Highlanders side who produced arguably their best rugby of the season in Saturday’s 26-13 drubbing of the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Three-Test All Blacks winger Naholo scored two tries in a scintillating return from injury, having fractured his leg in the opening round.
Last year’s competition-leading tryscorer with 13, Naholo showed he is more than just a finisher, Matson noted.
“At the breakdown he was a beast. He’s thrown the gauntlet down for our two wingers,” Matson said.
“It’s going to be a massive challenge to contain parts of their game that are really hard to contain. One of those is the one-on-one match-ups on the edge.”
Another area to focus on will be fielding high kicks, with Matson describing the Highlanders as the “kicking-est” team in the competition.
The Crusaders will travel to Dunedin without hooker Ben Funnell, who suffered his second hamstring problem in two games and won’t play for at least the next fortnight.
Matson says his team isn’t getting carried away with their ladder position, believing it is tenuous given their taxing schedule remaining in the regular season.
He revealed seven different players have been awarded their internal man-of-the-match honours over the last two months, reflecting the all-round approach they have tried to adopt.
“The Highlanders are back to their abrasive best so we’re back at the grindstone,” he said.
“There’s an arm-wrestle that has to take hold beforehand and that’ll be the key, winning that first.”