Drua victory sets the standard for Highlanders
Running rampant to a 57-24 win over the Fijian Drua was a standard setter for the Highlanders, who endured one of the more demanding DHL Super Rugby Pacific starts.
That was the view of coach Clarke Dermody whose side overcame a welter of injuries and those three consecutive losses at the start of the campaign to run in an impressive win in Dunedin.
Dermody thought his side had been building after being battle-hardened in the first three weeks against last season's semifinalists. The squad benefited from that, and most of the squad gained minutes of play.
Halfback Aaron Smith made another sizeable contribution to the effort. He was a demanding performer who kept the pressure on players, something the coaches picked up through the referee's microphone.
"He holds the players to detail in what we are playing. And then being able to get Folau [Fakatava] on to get decent minutes from where he has come from, he did a great job as well."
Nikora Broughton, at No8, impressed after Hugh Renton had back issues at the captain's run, which hadn't cleared when going through their pre-match warm-up.
"How good for a young guy like Nikora Broughton to come in at the last minute. He didn't find out he was playing for sure until we ran in off the warm-up so it was understandable he had a slow start to the game but then he progressed through and played 80 minutes really well."
The effort of the tight five reflected work that has been put in with Tom Donnelly, and Dermody was happy with the mark they had set, especially with a short turnaround ahead of their game against Moana Pasifika on Friday.
Sam Gilbert's effort of stepping into the midfield showed his versatility, and while a surprise to many, it was something talked about earlier in the year.
"Injuries have made it more of an occurrence than expected, but I wasn't expecting to get 70 [minutes] there today.
"It was awesome to see things come together for us, to score a few tries and to have things click and get some connection. When we connected the phases we looked really good."
Gilbert said the contribution of younger squad members like Broughton and Cameron Millar, and others, reflected the work they had put in since November when joining the side, and it was great to see the impact they could make.
"We can take confidence from the win, but I wouldn't say it is a turning point. It is more of a building block and if we can keep improving each week we will be in a good place."
Millar said the try he scored was his first in his first-class career, and finally, it was good to have one. He said after only a few minutes in his debut last week in Invercargill, it was nice to get around 25 minutes against the Drua. He has appreciated the way he has been eased into Super Rugby.
With injuries reducing the first five-eighths options, he hoped to get good opportunities over the next month.
Round 5 done and dusted ✅— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) March 26, 2023
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