The Highlanders know they won’t get away with another sleepy opening 20 minutes against the bruising Blues next weekend.
Jona Nareki’s demolition job against the Chiefs on Friday pointed to the potential in Tony Brown’s side, but they have been slow out of the gates in both of their Super Rugby Aotearoa games so far and co-captain Ash Dixon insists that has to change.
“Our whole game,” was Dixon’s answer when asked what the Highlanders needed to improve.
“Just around our intensity in that first 20 minutes, we just didn’t match it with the Chiefs.
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“They came out and managed to make really fast ball. We were offside, we couldn’t win the collisions, we were always backtracking.
“So, I think we can really look at our start and sort out our first half.
“The Blues are a huge threat. They’ve got X-factor right across the park and a big power game.”
The Highlanders trailed the Chiefs 20-6 at one point in Hamilton, while the week before in Dunedin the Crusaders blasted out to an early 14-0 lead.
Brown admitted in his post-match interview on Sky that the coaches had peppered the players with “f words” during a half-time spray, and that seemed to spark a reaction from the side.
However, running down an error-riddled Chiefs side is one thing and Highlanders will be desperate to avoid chasing the game against Leon MacDonald’s well-drilled title contenders.
The Highlanders lost twice to the Blues last year and in the most recent clash – a 32-21 loss in Dunedin last August – the Aucklanders used their big pack to bulldoze the Highlanders pack in the first half.
To counter that, the Highlanders will need to front physically but also play with width, and Brown signalled the No 10-No 15 partnership of Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt was likely to be retained.
“They’re both quality players and they need each other to be able to execute really well on the field, and the team needs them too,” Brown said.
“When they are playing well together I think the game is easy for our forwards and guys like Jona and Sio Tomkinson, who I thought was awesome [against the Chiefs], they can just do their thing because they know that Josh and Mitch are working to get them the ball in space.”
The Highlanders will have to face the Blues without their top two looseheads, after Daniel Lienert-Brown suffered a suspected broken arm on Friday.
Ayden Johnstone has returned to training paddock after a long spell out with concussion but is still not ready, leaving Josh Hohneck and Ethan de Groot as their only options against the Blues’ All Blacks tightheads Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi.