Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Highlanders' bye a time to refocus

Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images
Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images

The champion crown has not stifled the Highlanders. They have a bye this weekend but are still making noise at the front of the Super Rugby tournament.

Some of the rah-rah-rah about their historic 2015 victory was punctured with an opening loss to the Blues at Eden Park and then a last round defeat to the Reds in Brisbane.

Those twin setbacks were missed opportunities against struggling sides but five victories in between are reminders of all the ingredients which pushed the Highlanders to the top of the 2015 pile.

As the Highlanders continue to achieve they have damaged a few notions with tournament figures which show they:

Have the best scrum with 95 per cent success.

Kick a lot but are third in the number of offloads.

In February at Eden Park against the Blues, there was no flourishing start from the Highlanders in defence of their title. A harsh late sinbin for Patrick Osborne helped the hosts maintain a slim advantage.

Spurts of class from Ben and Aaron Smith and a moment of wizardry from Waisake Naholo were gilt in a patchy tournament start for the champions.

Naholo's absence with another leg injury has reduced some of the attacking breadth while Ben Smith's concussion removed leadership and attacking impact from fullback in the last round against the Reds.

Injury took out strong blindside flanker Elliot Dixon who has renewed his push for an international call-up and has ended the season for prop Brendon Edmonds.

Around those glitches, the Highlanders have shown a variety of ways to win games.

They can win with their set-piece although it would help to raise their 88 per cent lineout strike rate, they can defend with tigerish consistency which marked their work last year and turn that into withering long-range counter attack.

They can kick downtown and pressure sides to get out of their territory. It's a method they have used for regular profit because they can squeeze sides who get twitchy about their ability to retain possession.

The Highlanders can mess up opponents from long-range too and have also shown a disconcerting capacity to build big leads then surrender big chunks of that advantage.

Before this round, the Highlanders were third best with tries scored and rivalled that rating with their number of clean breaks. They are in reasonable shape.

Twin blocks of four games follow, bisected by their next bye in the second half of the tournament.

It looks to be a more formidable programme with two games against the Chiefs and contests against the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Brumbies.

After the June break when the Smiths, Malakai Fekitoa and perhaps a few others (Naholo, Lima Sopoga, Dixon) are involved with the All Black series against Wales, the Highlanders resume with a road trip to South Africa and Argentina.

When they get back their last pool game is their second game against the Chiefs. Surviving that lot with enough points and fit players to qualify and make an impact in the playoffs, will take the Highlanders to another level.

Their expedition to Wellington last year to claim their first title against the favoured Hurricanes, was memorable. It underlined all the unity and skill which accompanied them through the series.

The Highlanders have built on that solidarity. They sing together, put their souls into charity work and about 10 of them surf at St Kilda, Smaills and other nearby spots to stay tuned, sharp and balance the demands of their rugby jobs.

The NZ conference is the toughest in the tournament and the Highlanders will do well to use this interlude astutely to get them in the zone for the push to the playoffs.

- NZ Herald

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