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Mid-year report card: Highlanders

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018    Andy Burt    Getty Images

Played: 13
Won: 9
Lost: 4

Position: Third in NZ conference and fifth overall
Leading Points Scorer: Lima Sopoaga (123)
Leading Try Scorer: Waisake Naholo (7)

QUICK TAP: CHIEFS MID-YEAR REPORT CARD

THE STORY SO FAR
The Highlanders have been flawless on their home-track with victories over the Blues, Stormers, Crusaders, Brumbies, Lions and Hurricanes helping the Aaron Mauger-coached side to third place in the NZ Conference after 16 rounds. But it’s away from home where they have struggled with four losses from seven matches. While they have been sublime at times with dominant wins over competition favourites the Crusaders and Hurricanes, they have also been exposed in heavy losses against the Waratahs and Sharks. Consistency will be the key if the Highlanders are to snare their second Investec Super Rugby title this year.

BEST PERFORMANCE

The Highlanders have given their fans at Forsyth-Barr Stadium plenty to cheer about so far this season, and none more so than in the final quarter of their clash against the Hurricanes in round 16. Trailing 13-14 with 20 minutes to play, the Highlanders out-muscled the Hurricanes upfront and were too slick out wide in powering to a 30-14 victory to put a dagger in the Hurricanes hopes of topping the New Zealand conference. 



KEY PERFORMER
Despite being surrounded by a backline stacked with world-class talent, mid-fielder Rob Thompson has been as good as any for the Highlanders this year. Ultra-reliable, Thompson has averaged 74 minutes per-match this season to show what a vital cog he is for Aaron Mauger. With ball in hand, Thompson is a genuine game-breaker. He is sixth in the competition for defenders beaten with Damian McKenzie and Akira Ioane the only New Zealand players ahead of him. A key feature of Thompson’s game is his distribution which has yielded six try-assists so far this season. When adding in his dynamic combination with midfield partner Tei Walden, Thompson is an automatic selection for the Highlanders with the road to the finals heating up. 

WHAT’S NEXT
The Highlanders have a tough run to the finals with a clash against the Chiefs in Suva followed by a classic Southern derby against the Crusaders in Christchurch in round 18. The regular season is rounded out back in Dunedin against the vastly improved Rebels.

ROUND 17: Highlanders v Chiefs, 5.15pm, Saturday June 30, Suva, Fiji
ROUND 18: Crusaders v Highlanders, 7.35pm Friday 6 July, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
ROUND 19: Highlanders v Rebels, 5.15pm, Saturday 14 July, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

PREDICTION
The last three rounds are going to be crucial for the Highlanders. Depending on results they could finish anywhere from 2-4 in the New Zealand Conference. If they can win their final three regular season games and pip the Hurricanes for second spot, they will gain a home quarterfinal and could prove unstoppable from there on. If they have to travel away for a quarterfinal then their poor away record may catch up on them. The season is on a knife-edge for the Highlanders and every game counts.