Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph's focus on power of speed

Highlanders coach makes brave call in face of Brumbies star Pocock’s return to play.
The Highlanders will be looking to quell the threat of David Pocock's return to the Brumbies. Picture / Getty Images
The Highlanders will be looking to quell the threat of David Pocock's return to the Brumbies. Picture / Getty Images

The Highlanders have hinted they will be looking to play fast and wide in Canberra tomorrow night by selecting Luke Whitelock at lock and returning Shane Christie to the openside against the Brumbies.

With Liam Squire at No 8 and Elliot Dixon at blindside, the Highlanders have also decided the best way to quell the threat of the returning David Pocock in the Super Rugby quarter-final is to stack their back five with mobile loose forwards.

It's a brave call from Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph to compromise the power of their scrum and height of their lineout by playing Whitelock in the engine room as the Brumbies have built their game on their driving maul.

But what the Highlanders give up in raw power and physical grunt, they gain in speed, ball carrying and strength over the tackled ball. Whitelock, a one-test All Black, is in the best form of his career and while he's had limited exposure to lock, he's offering so much around the field that the Highlanders obviously feel the risk of playing him out of position is worth it.

With so many mobile forwards, the Highlanders will feel they have the option to attack wide and up the tempo, knowing they have an astute and accurate kicking game to fall back on.

They are also, no doubt, keen to have Squire back in the starting team as his dominant tackling will be a more than useful weapon against a side whose pack can build momentum around the fringes.

However tough the challenge of defeating the Brumbies was already going to be, it took a new edge when it became apparent Pocock would be deemed fit. The Wallaby openside has recovered from the broken cheek he suffered playing against England in June and his return could hardly have been more timely for his side.

The Brumbies, pre-tournament favourites, have been one of the bigger disappointments in this year's competition. They opened their campaign with a crushing victory against the Hurricanes but haven't come remotely close to playing with the same authority and dominance since.

They have been belted at home by the Crusaders and Chiefs and for the past few weeks their only attacking weapon has been their rolling maul.

They have played like a team that knows that's all they have and while - especially if it's wet tomorrow - they can build an effective game plan around their one attacking weapon, they know that to beat the Highlanders they will need to pose more of an attacking threat.

Cue Pocock, who is the sort of inspirational figure that, if nothing else, will lift spirits and confidence simply by being on the field. But he'll most likely to do more than that if he can play his natural game.

He'll win turnover ball and give the Brumbies a chance to run at a broken defence. He'll make crucial steals that will frustrate the Highlanders and demand that they retain their discipline. And Pocock will also strengthen the Brumbies' driving maul - because he's usually the go-to man to steer things from the back.

Playmaker Matt Toomua knows Pocock's presence will be a massive boost for the Brumbies: "To have him in these big games and hopefully slow up their ball will be brilliant," he said.

"They like to play that really fast footy and with a guy like him either stealing the ball or slowing it down definitely plays into our hands."

- NZ Herald

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