Road to the Final: Highlanders

Tue, 15/06/2021, 05:00 am
Nathan Williamson
by Nathan Williamson
Aaron Smith has been crucial for the Highlanders in their road to the Trans-Tasman final. Photo: Getty Images

“If our guys believe they are good enough to do it, we’ll beat every team in that competition.”

Before leaving for Japan, head coach Tony Brown ruffled plenty of feathers in Australia when he said this ahead of the start of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

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However, the Highlanders have been one of the standout teams under interim coach Clarke Dermody, cruising through the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition.

Ahead of Saturday's Final, Rugby.com.au has looked back at how they got to the finals, pinpointing the key moments and matches that defined their season.

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA RECAP

Like their Final opponents, Blues, the Highlanders struggled for consistency across Super Rugby Aotearoa as they finished in fourth place.

Disappointing losses to the Blues and Hurricanes would be followed by an incredible performance against the Crusaders, before falling to the Chiefs in a thriller.

For outgoing coach Tony Brown, it was a season of 'what could've been' as they managed just three wins from eight games.

This would instantly turn around as they entered Super Rugby Trans-Tasman...

Aaron Smith pops the classic inside ball to put Punivai in the gap

THE STATEMENT WIN

With the Reds riding the high after their Super Rugby AU heroics, many expected them to be Australia's main hope to knock off their Kiwi counterparts.

However, it took just 34 seconds for the hosts to send a message to the rest of the comp as they dominated the Reds.

Scott Gregory's try set the tempo for new coach Clarke Dermody as they ran in 40-19 victors, setting the tone for a dominant season.

SURVIVING COVID HAVOC

Despite cruising through the first two games, it wasn't all smooth sailing for the Highlanders as they got caught up in the Rebels' COVID outbreak.

A trip to Queenstown was quickly shutdown as they were forced to head back to Australia to play a home game at Leichhardt Oval, Sydney.

This ensured they played just one game across Super Rugby Trans-Tasman in New Zealand.

In true Highlanders fashion, they didn't let the disruption affect them as they held off a valiant Rebels outfit 42-27.

Jona Nareki torches the Rebels with some special skills

SENDING A MESSAGE

With bonus points becoming crucial to the make-up of the final, narrow wins by the Crusaders and Blues all of a sudden opened the door for the Highlanders.

Coming up against a battered Waratahs side, they took advantage in an impressive showing, thumping the NSW side 59-23.

Doubles to Jona Nareki and Ethan de Groot would be crucial to their Finals hopes as they leapt into second place on the ladder on points difference.

BOOKING THEIR PLACE

Heading into the Final round, the Highlanders faced the daunting task of heading to Canberra as they faced the Brumbies in freezing Canberra.

Despite the Brumbies coming off a win against the Hurricanes, Aaron Smith and the Highlanders overcame a slow start to take the 33-12 victory and the all-important bonus point.

They would have to nervously wait for other results, however, with the Crusaders falling six points short of leap-frogging them into the second and final spot in the decider.

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