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Highlanders seek return to positive rugby

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 26/07/2016 Daniel Gilhooly

So long a graveyard for visiting teams, Ellis Park is a welcome sight this week for Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith.

Warm weather, a hard surface and playing against liberated opponents in the Lions, Smith believes the stage is set for a vastly-improved Highlanders performance in their Super Rugby semi-final.

The 50-Test All Blacks halfback says his defending champion team were well below their best in the 15-9 quarter-final win over the Brumbies in Canberra.

Inhospitable weather and the suffocating Brumbies style forced the Highlanders into their shell on attack, something Smith predicts won't happen on Sunday (NZT).

"Coming to the Lions, it's a different kind of footy team. They're obviously on a high and play a real positive style of footy, very similar to a New Zealand team," Smith said.

"To have a bit of a hiccup against the Brumbies but not manage to get a win is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a bit of wake-up call for us."

High-scoring games in Johannesburg are common in Super Rugby.

Fatigue at altitude makes it hard to maintain defensive shape late in games.

Smith hopes they can call on the same reserves as they did in Canberra when the Brumbies camped on their line for much of the closing stages.

"The last 10 minutes, it was our season really. You could see how much it meant to our boys.

"I just loved our forwards' efforts. They'd been struggling in the scrum all night so to it's a good feeling to have, to know that once it got out of the scrum, we could back our defence."

Smith refuses to contemplate the further travel which lies ahead if the Highlanders win.

The final would be in Wellington or Dunedin, meaning another trans-Indian Ocean journey for his well-travelled side.

He says their focus won't stray beyond this week's game.

"All the factors are against us coming over here and that's the way we like it."

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