Familiarity ensures Highlanders respect for Crusaders

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

After all the hard work over a month to prepare for the Lions Tests it had been an unusual feeling not having a decisive outcome in the series and getting back into Super Rugby was a good way to re-focus the mind, Smith said.

"It's eight months of work to get to the play-offs and we're here…I can't wait," he said.

A mid-winter's night in Christchurch would ensure it was a dewy field, if in fact the weather was clear, but in the years he had been involved in games against the Crusaders they had always been close contests.

"They're similar to the Chiefs and Hurricanes, they always bring out the best in us and you've got to raise your game to match theirs. That's always an awesome challenge, and we know we're facing huge odds.

"They've got a forward pack full of All Blacks and they tend to bring the best out of our forward pack and if we can match them and the backs do a bit extra, hopefully anything can happen," he said.

Rugby was a 'beautiful game' – the bounce of the ball, a referee's call, a bit of magic, anything could happen and in the last two games it had been the Crusaders who had conjured up the magic moments.

"We've got a chance and whoever wins this game carries on and the others are doing their reviews and packing up going to Mitre 10 Cup or the All Blacks," he said.

In the first game between the sides the Highlanders learned they had to play for 80 minutes, instead of the 57 they performed in. The Crusaders bench had made a big impact to turn the game around.

The second game, in Christchurch, had been a lot better but the Highlanders were not quite good enough, losing out to Mitch Hunt's injury time dropped goal.

The Crusaders had been the best side all year and the blip they suffered at the Hurricanes' hand last weekend would not affect their confidence, he said.

Highlanders' assistant coach Scott McLeod, whose time with the side is coming to an end ahead of his move to be the All Blacks' defensive coach, said having been on the receiving end in their two earlier encounters with the Crusaders, the Highlanders would have a chance to show who had learned the most in Christchurch.

He said often teams that lost in those circumstances learned the most and he was hopeful they had done that.

The Highlanders did have to be better and to respect their ball more.

"They're a good side who turn over the ball and play quickly and at set piece [we've] a couple of tricks to try and negate what they've got," McLeod said.

The urgency involved in their win over the Reds on Friday had been good while there would be no issue getting prepared to take on the Crusaders and it was probably a case of calming the players down a little.

All Black Ben Smith and No.8 Luke Whitelock were effective in ensuring players remained focused during preparations.

"Naturally they're just a calming influence, and they give confidence to the group and they make good, clear, composed decisions so the players look to them," he said.

They would respect the Crusaders because they had been leading the competition all year and had a rich legacy of success but they also wanted to bring their own play to the contest.

"They've only lost one [Super Rugby] game and that loss would have galvanised the side and they've got a lot of fresh All Blacks coming back into their side which will lift them and we will pay respect to that," he said.

McLeod said Ben Smith's decision to take a sabbatical from international play once the Super Rugby season would be good for him after all that he had been through this season and it had shown it was beneficial for other players who had taken that option in the past.