WELLINGTON – The Highlanders are well aware they may be facing the cutting edge of a resurgence in Australian Super Rugby teams in Melbourne on Friday but have still rested three All Blacks to face a confident Rebels side.
Number eight Luke Whitelock, scrumhalf Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith will all miss the clash against the Rebels, who had a bye last week after former Wallabies pairing Quade Cooper and Will Genia inspired them to victory over the Brumbies in Canberra in their season opener.
“We’re not going to Melbourne with any illusions,” loose forward Elliot Dixon said on Wednesday. “We know that it’s going to be a test (and) these Aussie conference games aren’t going to be a walk in the park.”
Dixon’s recognition of a challenge that many last year would have written off as hyperbole mirrors a small trend in New Zealand that, in the early stages of this year’s Super Rugby, the Australian sides might be experiencing a resurgence after an embarrassing run at the hands of their trans-Tasman rivals.
Australian sides suffered a 40-match losing streak to New Zealand teams from 2016-2018, which was only ended by the Waratahs with a 41-12 victory over a 14-man Highlanders in Sydney.
This year, however, the Australians have started strongly.
The Waratahs should have opened their 2019 season with victory over the Wellington Hurricanes, while the Brumbies, beaten at home by the Rebels in week one, showed surprising attacking intent to destroy the Chiefs 54-17 last Saturday in Canberra.
Chiefs coach Colin Cooper said he was “in shock”, while captain Brodie Retallick said he felt the gap between the two countries had shrunken.
Fans, pundits and other players were also surprised at the performance of the Brumbies, who face the Hurricanes in Palmerston North on Saturday, and felt that Australian sides may have turned a corner.
“For the Brumbies to do that to the Chiefs, I’d have to say something’s changed,” Crusaders and All Blacks centre Jack Goodhue said on Wednesday. “They’re just playing very good footy at the moment.”
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Goodhue’s team face the Reds on Saturday, a week after the Highlanders needed a late Dillon Hunt try to achieve a 36-31 victory against Bard Thorn’s team under the roof in Dunedin.
The performance of the rebuilding Reds, who had been tipped to be the worst-performing of the Australian teams again, was not lost on Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.
“They can play,” Robertson said. “You can see a difference. Brad has taken a while to shape them but he’s shaped them pretty well.
“They showed a bit of heart and courage and were only a moment away from what you would probably call an upset.”