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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Lions can come through physical test against Highlanders

Key players missing for home side

Former Highlander James Haskell is stopped in his tracks for the Lions against the Blues
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Sky Sports 1, 8.35am Tuesday

Saturday's success over the Crusaders has been hailed as a "morale-boosting" victory for the British & Irish Lions but the players who have had their morale boosted will now be sitting on the bench or the sidelines as a whole new starting line-up have to go out and prove themselves.

Next stop for the tourists is Dunedin to take on the Otago Highlanders, who were Super Rugby champions two years ago but two years before that finished 14th of 15 teams with just three wins out of 16.

They are pretty high again this season in the wildcard positions for a playoff place but there have still been some ups and downs along the way.

Hampered by injuries at the start of the season, the Highlanders lost three of their four opening matches, all to fellow Kiwi opponents. They then went on a run of nine straight victories before going toe to toe with the table-topping Crusaders in round 15 and losing out in the last minute to a 45-metre drop goal.

The Highlanders are ranked fourth of the five teams in the New Zealand Conference but that narrow 25-22 defeat to the Crusaders underlined that there is little between the teams at the top of the pile.

They have won only one game fewer than the Chiefs and Hurricanes who sit seven and eight points above them, and it's been their inability to match their rivals' firepower that has made the difference as they have garnered four try-bonus points in 14 matches compared to the Hurricanes' nine.

Broadly the Highlanders' results can be split into two - narrow battles against their fellow New Zealand sides and big scores against the rest. The exceptions are a seven-try mauling to the Hurricanes in round four when their injury crisis was at a height, and low-scoring away wins at Australia Conference winners the Brumbies and at the Bulls in the difficult conditions of Pretoria, but generally the results show them to be a very good side who can't quite manage that next step up.

It wouldn't take a huge leap to overcome the Lions just as the Blues managed in Auckland given how close their defeat to the Crusaders was. But they trailed 12-0 and 19-10 in that game, and are missing a host of key names against the Lions.

Fly-half Lima Sopoaga, winger Waisake Naholo and hooker Liam Coltman have been released by the All Blacks to take part, but scrum-half Aaron Smith and full-back Ben Smith are not available, while another five players are with the Maori All Black squad ready for Saturday's match against the Lions in Rotorua and Liam Squire and Matt Faddes are injured.

The target for the Lions has to be to find a cutting edge - they have scored just two tries in three matches - but they know the size of the task they face having been handed the inside track by former Highlanders player James Haskell.

Haskell, who played 12 matches for the Highlanders and starts in the back row for the Lions, said: "They pride themselves on their defence. I think the Highlanders have got the underlining physicality - a lot of physicality, massive work at the breakdown, very set-piece orientated, very big scrum."

It will be a test and at full strength the Highlanders could emulate the success of the Blues last week, but the Lions have just enough in their favour to edge another victory.

Lions to win by one to 12 points
1pt 9-5 Betfair

The target for the Lions has to be to find a cutting edge - they have scored just two tries in three matches
E.W. Terms
Sky bet