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Highlanders ready for toughest clash

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 2/06/2017

Highlanders coach Tony Brown is in no doubt their season-defining clash with the Crusaders on Saturday will be their toughest of the Super Rugby season to date.

A nine-match winning streak of the Highlanders can't match the 13-from-13 record enjoyed by the hosts, although both southern rivals boast a similar shape to their 2017 campaigns.

Both were involved in a number of early-season dogfights.

The difference was that the Crusaders still won them while the Highlanders lost three of their first four, including a 30-27 loss to their neighbours in Dunedin in round two.

It took a late flurry of tries for the Crusaders to snatch victory three months ago and Brown expects them to be just as dogged this time.

"It's going to be the toughest game we've played all year. But rugby players play rugby for those sorts of occasions, so it's going to be pretty exciting," he said.

Brown says several factors have contributed to their red hot form of the last two months.

They have become more robust because of a crippling injury toll which has severely tested their depth.

"I think we just created a bit of momentum. A lot of our young guys have been given opportunities and they've come in and played with a lot of energy," Brown said.

"Our leadership group has actually led really well and when it looks like we've been on the wrong side of the scoreboard, our leaders take over and get us back in the game and create opportunities for us."

Brown pointed to the two tight wins on their recent tour of Africa - a last-minute 45-41 win over the Cheetahs followed by a late 17-10 win over the Bulls.

"Previous Highlanders teams would have lost those games, and we'd be fighting to make the playoffs. We've created momentum and players are taking their opportunities."

One player desperate for an opportunity is James Lentjes.

The dynamic loose forward dislocated his elbow within the first month of Super Rugby, and he returns to the side while Dillon Hunt rests a minor niggle.

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