Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Highlanders the team nobody wants to play

Patrick Osborne of the Highlanders and Aidan Toua of the Brumbies both miss the ball. Photo / Getty
Patrick Osborne of the Highlanders and Aidan Toua of the Brumbies both miss the ball. Photo / Getty

No matter the outcomes of tonight's games in South Africa, the Highlanders are the team every other will want to avoid in the last four.

They are the team that just won't be beaten. Their resolve, tenacity and ability to somehow hold together when they are being pulled in every direction is unrivalled.

They have the most impressive resilience, a near unbelievable gift of being able to absorb pressure, survive critical moments and bounce back with killer, clinical plays that change the direction of the game in an instant.

In their quarter-final against the Brumbies on Friday night, they lived on the edge for much of the second half. Yet when the pressure was at its greatest, Elliot Dixon would steal lineout ball, Liam Squire would make a dominant, momentum-changing tackle or steal turnover ball or Ben Smith would clean up a high ball and smack it 60m downfield.

The best example of why they are so difficult to beat came midway through the second half when they had been under siege for 10 minutes, only for Lima Sopoaga to pull off a superb intercept to create a try for Squire and dent the Brumbies psychologically, being so against the run of play as it was.

There's no doubt, too, that the Highlanders won the benefit of the doubt in the contentious decisions by officials. Big games always have big moments that require one of the officials to make a big call.

There were a few of those in Canberra, none bigger than whether replacement back Lausii Taliauli had scored with six minutes remaining. TMO George Ayoub said the footage didn't show a clear and obvious grounding, therefore a try couldn't be awarded - a decision that left Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham apoplectic.

"I can't see how Lausii didn't score that try," Larkham said. "There is no other possible answer to what happened there. It was clearly a try, to everyone who saw it. It is really disappointing that a game comes down to that. We should be in the semifinals right now."

Understanding his frustration is easy, but agreeing with his contention that the Brumbies were denied the right to progress by that one decision is not.

To believe that is to fail to see the balance of the game and the essence of the Highlanders. The Brumbies had another 79 minutes at their disposal to score a try and never once looked remotely like doing so.

The Highlanders, through the tenacity and passion of the defence, created a picture of control and dominance and that earned them the benefit of the doubt.

Good teams do that - they earn their luck. The Highlanders' formula is perfect for finals football and goes some way to explaining why they have been able to win 80 per cent of their knockout games in the last three years. And only one of them has been at home.

They are creating an entirely new set of statistics and trends. They are ripping up long-held ideas about Super Rugby and forcing a re-think.

They have endured a major travel burden in the last four weeks and, yet, have shown not one sign of fatigue. They returned from the arduous trip to Africa and Argentina to play and win a brutal game against the Chiefs and then repeated their heroics on a six-day turnaround in Canberra.

Everyone keeps telling them their schedule is a nightmare, not conducive to them winning games and, yet, here they are, in the last four, holed up in Sydney waiting to see where they go to next.

Despite the difficulties travelling to Africa, if they have to do it, they won't care. They have won playoff games in Sydney, Wellington and Canberra so neither Johannesburg nor Cape Town, if that's where they end up, will hold any fear.

- NZ Herald

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