The Highlanders look to be hitting their stride at the right time, and the impending return of two All Blacks could further help them in their playoff push.
A 52-0 thumping of the Sunwolves on Friday night gave the Highlanders their first winning streak since February, following a shocking five-game losing run, and has catapulted them back into the logjam that is the Super Rugby playoff battle.
Now third in the New Zealand conference, the Highlanders could get a big boost before what could be a crucial game against the Chiefs on Saturday, with coach Aaron Mauger confirming All Blacks Liam Squire and Waisake Naholo could return in time for the Kiwi derby.
"Both those guys are potentially ready for maybe next week or the following week," Mauger told Stuff.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
"There's no guarantees - there's still a lot of work to get through before they are considered for selection but they've been very dedicated to the plans put in place by the medical staff."
Squire has been out for the entire season after first suffering from a hip injury that had kept him out for the opening month. Just as he was back into full training, he tore the medial ligament in his knee. It was believed the earliest he would be back was mid-May but he could make an early and timely return.
He would provide a further boost to a forward pack that is rounding into form, with the tight five especially impressive in the thrashing of the Sunwolves.
Their scrum, led by the front row of Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman and Daniel Lienert-Brown, were completely on top, forcing the Sunwolves to make a first-half propping change, while Jackson Hemopo and Elliot Dixon were dominant at the breakdown and lineout.
Josh Ioane was also a standout in marshalling a dangerous backline, which could soon have the powerful presence of Naholo at the end of it. The All Blacks winger, who also injured his knee at training, would provide command and clout on the wing, while Marty Banks is set to return next month, which could also be helpful after Bryn Gatland suffered a foot injury in the dying minutes of Friday's victory.
Those injury reinforcements will be a welcome boost for a squad that could reel off a strong finish to the regular season. The Chiefs clash is their only Kiwi derby remaining, with a game against the Jaguares following, before a testing trip to South Africa to play the Lions and Stormers.
The southerners then return home to finish the season against the Bulls and Waratahs – a comparatively comfortable run-in which should have the Highlanders favoured to make the playoffs.