Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: How the Highlanders plan on picking apart Lions

Highlanders coach’s picks show a man ready to run Lions all over park — tiring travel schedule be damned.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph. Photo / NZPA
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph. Photo / NZPA

A couple of days ago, Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo posted a picture of his team stretching after a training session in Sandton, a prosperous part of Johannesburg, as they continued preparations for their Super Rugby semifinal against the Lions.

There wasn't a green blade of grass to be seen. Grey clouds had gathered, but rain appeared unlikely. The forecast for tomorrow's match, which kicks off at 1am NZT, is also fine, and that is good news for a team which will look to run the Lions all over Ellis Park; torturous, and tortuous, recent travel schedule be damned.

Jamie Joseph's game plan can be seen in the team he has selected, particularly his reserves bench. He has shelved the idea of playing loose forward Luke Whitelock at lock, a risk which paid off - just - against the Brumbies in their slim 15-9 quarter-final victory in which their scrum was put under immense pressure.

Instead, he will start with second row specialists Tom Franklin and Alex Ainley, which should help shore up their set piece, but his hit-and-run mindset is clear to see with his naming only two backs on the bench - first-five Marty Banks, who can also play fullback, plus halfback Te Aihe Toma, a 23-year-old from Bay of Plenty who played his first Super Rugby match last month.

Joseph has named the requisite three front rowers on the bench, but has decided to name a back-up lock, Joe Wheeler, plus two loose forwards, new All Black Liam Squire and Dan Pryor, rather than cover the midfield. Pryor has the pace and skills to do a job in the backline should Malakai Fekitoa or Matt Faddes suffer an injury, but ideally Wheeler, Squire and Pryor will make an entrance in the second half to send the pace up front to another level, one that Joseph will hope the Lions can't cope with.

The fact that Whitelock retains his position as a starter - in this case at No 8 - is a huge vote of confidence in him and allows Joseph to spring the hard-hitting Squire into the fray when he can do the most damage.

Having the ability to start a backline with the counter-attacking ability of Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo means the Highlanders are rarely out of matches no matter how many points they are down by. Added to that is the way wings Osborne and Naholo are relied upon to get their team going forward at set piece, and they have so much power and talent that they - and particularly Naholo - often score tries from set piece despite being directly marked by their opposites.

As defending champions, they have coped so far with the expectations and travel schedule superbly, and a big part of that is the excitement they appear to have when they play together, especially when they win the ball in broken play and the adrenaline starts pumping.

"We play half our games under a roof and look to play a positive mind set of rugby," halfback Smith said this week. "So three o'clock at Ellis Park, it doesn't get much better."

Smith is expecting the Lions to play a similar brand of game. A set piece battle isn't really their style, but if Johan Ackermann's men get it wrong, the opportunities will present themselves and few are better than the Highlanders at taking advantage.

"One thing you have to respect about the Lions is they play their footy for the full 80," Smith said. "They don't stop until the whistle goes."

Players' rep feels Sanzaar put money before welfare

A compromised travel itinerary doesn't fully explain why the Crusaders lost at Ellis Park. Photo / Getty Images
A compromised travel itinerary doesn't fully explain why the Crusaders lost at Ellis Park. Photo / Getty Images

The fear of losing money outweighed the fear of compromising the integrity of the Super Rugby playoffs.

That's something New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol suspects may be true in the wake of a quarter-final weekend which left the Crusaders stranded at home for 48 hours when they were desperate to get on their way to South Africa.

A compromised travel itinerary doesn't fully explain why the Crusaders lost at Ellis Park but it certainly didn't help their preparation and Nichol is raising the issue to try to prevent similar problems incurring in the future.

To do that, he feels Sanzaar's board of directors have to accept that if they compromise player welfare, they compromise the integrity of the competition as fans and broadcasters need to feel playoff teams' preparation is not being hindered.

And the longer term financial consequences linked to compromising the integrity of the competition will end up being significantly greater than having to incur sunken costs that are the byproduct of having contingency travel plans locked in.

After the Crusaders lost to the Hurricanes in Christchurch on Saturday July 16, they had to wait for the result of the game between the Jaguares and Lions - which finished at 11am New Zealand time on Sunday July 17 - before they knew who they would be playing in the quarter-final.

When it transpired their quarter-final would be against the Lions in Johannesburg, the first available flight to South Africa wasn't until Tuesday July 19.

That meant the Crusaders didn't arrive in Johannesburg until Wednesday July 20 South African time - leaving them with little time to train and more importantly, get over the inevitable jet lag.

Nichol's contention is that Sanzaar could have been better prepared to cover the eventualities that emerged. He says that if player welfare was a genuine priority for Sanzaar, then they would have booked a number of flights for the Crusaders much earlier than they did to cover all the potential quarter-final outcomes.

That way the Crusaders could have been guaranteed to have left earlier than they did, but Sanzaar would wear the cost of cancelling the flights that weren't used.

Arriving as late as they did in South Africa had an obvious impact on the Crusaders' performance and takes some of the gloss off the Lions victory as everyone will wonder whether the visitors were denied the chance to be at their best.

"We have raised this issue with New Zealand Rugby who have talked to Sanzaar about it," says Nichol. "The integrity of the competition is a major factor and ultimately if that is compromised, it will become a far bigger financial risk than losing unused flights.

"[Sanzaar] could see the scenarios evolving but the financial risks came to outweigh everything else. Leaving for a game in South Africa on a Tuesday is unacceptable. It's a big enough challenge as it is and Sanzaar's planning for the playoffs format will have to be looked at and everyone is going to have to accept that there may have to be sunken costs incurred to ensure the welfare of the players and the integrity of the competition."

A Sanzaar spokesman said the body had received no official complaints from any team and therefore had no comment to make.

- NZ Herald

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