Highlanders can’t fly
Any immediate preparations for the Highlanders’ Super Rugby quarterfinal were grounded with their flight from Dunedin to Christchurch cancelled.
The Highlanders were due to fly out of Dunedin at 5:30pm on Friday ahead of their match against the Crusaders on Saturday night, but were impeded by wild weather.
With the flight unable to leave, Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga took the opportunity to pitch a change of ground for the match, noting Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium had a roof – among other things.
Air New Zealand had two other scheduled flights from Dunedin to Christchurch on Friday night, however they were both full.
Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said they were looking into alternative arrangements to get to Christchurch on Saturday.
‘‘SH1 is closed too, so there’ll be a few challenges,’’ Clark said.
A sopping wet night in the middle of winter hardly seems like the time to start getting tricky.
Only that’s precisely what the Highlanders have promised ahead of their Super Rugby quarterfinal against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday night.
‘‘It’s playoff footy, you’ve got to pull out all of your tricks,’’ coach Tony Brown said.
‘‘There will be plenty of them and plenty that will hopefully pay off at the end of the game.’’
Heavy rain is forecast to pelt Christchurch for much of Saturday, and isn’t expected to clear before Aussie referee Angus Gardner whistles the start of the third South Island derby this season.
Wet weather should play into the hands of the Crusaders’ All Black laden pack, with the difficult handling conditions sure to provide ample chances for their bulldozing scrum to bury the visitors’ 2017 campaign at AMI Stadium.
It won’t just be the scrum – a heavy dose of driving mauls can also be expected from the red and blacks.
Highlanders defence coach Scott McLeod is expecting it, but whether or not the Dunedin-based franchise can do anything about it remains to be seen.
‘‘We’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeve to try and negate what they’ve got at set piece,’’ McLeod said.
The Highlanders aren’t fools. They know they’re up against a 14-1 team stung by their first and only loss of the season last weekend, and one which produced clutch plays at the death to pip them 30-27 and 25-22 in their two previous meetings.
But winning big-time playoff games on the road isn’t foreign territory to the Highlanders.
They knocked over the Waratahs in Sydney (semifinal) and Hurricanes in Wellington (final) to win their maiden title in 2015, and nabbed a rare scalp in Canberra by beating the Brumbies in last year’s quarterfinals.
‘‘As a team and organisation we’ve got a lot of experience in playoff footy over the past three years,’’ Brown said.
‘‘We’ve won a lot of big games away from home . . . so the team isn’t going to be daunted by the challenge.
‘‘We just understand it’s going to be a massive challenge against a quality team – probably the best team in the competition.
‘‘We will give it our best shot, if that’s good enough to move on, great. And if it’s not, we can’t complain about too many things.’’
With a semifinal against either the Chiefs or Stormers at stake, Brown expects the weather to play a ‘‘major factor’’ in the second of four quarterfinals slated between Friday night and Sunday morning.
‘‘It’s always a massive issue in New Zealand at this time of the year.
‘‘You obviously saw that with how competitive the [British and Irish] Lions were able to be against the All Blacks in [wet] conditions.’’
Saturday’s game could be the last for a string of Highlanders coaches and players, including midfielder Malakai Fekitoa, who on Friday confirmed he had signed a two-year deal with French club Toulon.
Pivot Marty Banks, who has been named on the bench for the sudden-death match, leaves for Italian club Treviso after the season, while wing Waisake Naholo has been linked with a move to the Chiefs next year.
Brown and McLeod are also desperate to delay the inevitable, with the former off to Japan to assist Jamie Joseph with the national team and McLeod set to replace departing All Blacks defence coach Wayne Smith after the Rugby Championship.
‘‘Once the season finishes, I will have a bit of a break,’’ Brown said.
‘‘Then I will get involved in a pretty rigorous review of our season and try and help the coaching team that will be on board the next year to help plan for 2018,’’ Brown said.