Rugby: Highlanders aim to plug gaps

By Martyn Watterson

The Highlanders' leaky defence of last weekend could become torrential unless gaps are plugged against the Crusaders in Saturday's Super 14 rugby match.

Both the Highlanders and Chiefs were guilty of shoddy tackling in the 10-try romp at Queenstown as the southerners missed 27 tackles in the free-running 34-38 loss.

At times the game resembled sevens rugby with gaps appearing en masse, and unless they defend with greater gusto and commitment, the Highlanders could be crucified in Dunedin by a rampant Crusaders outfit.

The second-placed defending champions have ominously signalled they are on track to defend their title having posted 14 tries in the past two games.

Tackle bags were given an extra walloping in training this week as the Highlanders prepare to avoid Carisbrook's 'House of Pain' nickname being foisted upon the hosts.

"We had an off day defensively last week which is uncharacteristic for us," Highlanders coach Greg Cooper told NZPA yesterday.

"Obviously the Crusaders are the best attacking team in terms of stats, so our defence has to be strong because we will be put to the test."

Before leaking 38 points in Queenstown the Highlanders had the fifth best defensive record in the competition.

That's now dropped to seventh and Cooper acknowledged Saturday's match will be their toughest test this year.

The changes made to the Crusaders starting 15 from the one that whipped the Force 53-0 last week just reinforced the arduous task.

"That's the thing. They've picked a team without Andy Ellis, an All Black, and replaced him with Kevin Senio who is an All Black.

"They haven't picked Rico Gear, but replaced him with another All Black in Scott Hamilton.

"They're a quality side and we just have to go out there and play our game.

"I don't think it will be about shutting down Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. It will be about shutting down their whole side and not many teams have been able to do that this year."

With four rounds remaining, the Highlanders remain semifinal contenders "mathematically" on 22 points -- five points adrift from fourth -- if they win their next four and other results are favourable.

An area where Cooper believes his team will compete strongly and keep their playoff chances alive is in the set-phase.

His team split the Chiefs on five occasions from set play and said the majority of their tries this season had come from well structured moves.

Last Saturday's match highlighted the development of their attacking play, Cooper said, and that relied on playing clinical rugby because they lacked the big-name game breakers other teams possessed.

Whatever their plans are in attempting to stem the red and black tide, the Highlanders will be without two major players as Cooper's wretched injury run continues.

He names his team later today, but has already planned to be without form halfback Jimmy Cowan (hamstring) and loose forward Craig Newby (quad strain).

However Newby's loss will be tempered by Josh Blackie's return from a shoulder injury after the captain and flanker missed the Queenstown try-fest.

Toby Morland is expected to replace Cowan at halfback while Clarke Dermody, who injured his shoulder against the Chiefs should be also fit.

The results of a scan on All Black lock James Ryan should be known later this week, but Cooper said he expected him to be sidelined for six to eights weeks.

It was feared Ryan had ruptured the medial and lateral ligaments in his left knee in Queenstown.

Cooper said they hoped to draft Otago lock Tom Donnelly into the squad as cover for Ryan.

- NZPA

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