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More to Highlanders than defence: Joseph

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 28/07/2016 Daniel Gilhooly

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph takes pride in his team's defence and clever kicking but says it is wrong to label them as one-dimensional.

The Super Rugby champions are two wins away from defending their title, heading into a semi-final against the Lions in Johannesburg on Sunday morning (NZT).

Like last year, it is the Highlanders' work without the ball that has stood them apart.

They have kicked more in general play (27.5 per game) than any team this season according to Optasports statistics. They have also made more tackles (124.5) and won the least turnovers yet have the best defensive record, conceding less than 18 points per game.

Joseph admits his team are comfortable playing a rope-a-dope style, employing a variety of kicks early in games through halves Aaron Smith and Lima Sopaga, soaking up defensive pressure and launching counter-attack strikes at the appropriate time.

While he concedes his team are prepared to defend for long periods, he doesn't accept a kick-happy label.

"We want to play a bit of field position because we don't want to tire our forwards out too early," Joseph said.

"But I wouldn't put our title down to one or two things. We've got a very good team, a very well balanced team.

"Kicking did play a part last year but we also scored a lot of tries from turnover rugby and a lot of tries from lineouts as well."

Their defence is sure to get tested by the Lions, whose competition-leading 76 tries this season eclipses the 52 of the visitors.

The Lions' finishing prowess at Ellis Park is a threat, Joseph admits, pointing to last year's clash at the venue when the Lions stormed back to win from 20-3 down at halftime.

"I don't expect us to take the foot off the throttle if we're ahead this time," Joseph said.

Meanwhile, the coach defended the form of midfield back Malakai Fekitoa, who hasn't produced the same dynamic form of the previous two seasons.

The 24-year-old has struggled to shake off a leg injury sustained midway through the All Blacks' June Test series Wales, Joseph said, along with a change of position.

Fekitoa has shifted from centre to second five-eighth to make room for the speedy Matt Faddes.

"He's a power athlete for us. He's playing in a new position and it's taking him a bit of time to get used to 12," Joseph said.

"Malakai is a big-game player and Saturday's a big game so I think he's ready."

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