Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Big gap for tonight's loser to bridge

Malakai Fekitoa of the Highlanders on the attack. Photo / Getty Images
Malakai Fekitoa of the Highlanders on the attack. Photo / Getty Images

Losing tonight won't be terminal for the championship ambitions of the Highlanders or Hurricanes, but defeat will leave one of them with fading hopes of topping the New Zealand Conference.

In the context of final placings, tonight's clash in Wellington carries major significance. The Highlanders sit five points behind the table-topping Chiefs and the Hurricanes six. The gap, as it stands, is bridgeable. The last few weeks of Super Rugby have historically thrown up surprises.

Results don't always conform to expectation when the season gets to what former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson famously coined "squeaky bum" time. Coaches know that the last few weeks can be random and that the best position to be in is one which allows a team to control its own destiny. No one wants to be in a situation where they need another result to go their way, but almost certainly, the loser tonight will be put into that position.

The Chiefs are in Sydney and if they emerge with a victory, they will take a big jump ahead of whichever team loses between the Highlanders and Hurricanes.

The same will be true if the Crusaders, who are just a point behind the Chiefs, beat the Blues at Eden Park. Coming into the break, one of the Highlanders or Hurricanes could be in need of a small miracle to stay in the hunt for a home quarter-final. As to which one ... that's a toss of the coin sort of guess.

The Highlanders are arguably favourites despite being the away team. In their last outing - they are coming off the bye - they played like defending champions.

Their ability to absorb pressure was superb. They scrambled on defence, rode their luck a little and then stunned the Crusaders with lightning, clinical attacks. It was a performance that was intense, focused, expertly thought out and managed, and came on the back of a similarly good game against the Chiefs.

When the pressure is on, the Highlanders have an ability to dig deep and find something more within themselves.

They showed that last year when they beat the Hurricanes in the final - a game that will no doubt serve as motivation for the hosts tonight.

The hurt they felt at losing a final on their home ground was deep and given the overall context of the competition at the moment, tonight's game has a finals feel to it.

TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett were comprehensively outplayed by Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga in last year's final and both would be keen to correct the impression that they don't have the right temperaments for pressure rugby.

Julian Savea, who has been returned to the starting line-up after an off-field misdemeanour, is another who has a bit to prove and one forecast that won't be challenged is that the game is poised to be an epic.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 27 Sep 2016 07:50:13 Processing Time: 989ms