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Highlanders ready for the unexpected

Highlanders success in the Investec Super Rugby semi-final against the Lions at Ellis Park on Sunday (NZT) would come down to the inner resolve of the side in the face of daunting odds in South Africa.

The side, which coach Jamie Joseph said tended to play well away from home, was well aware of their underdog status and with no 'Landers Army to bolster them they were on their own but relishing the challenge.

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It was a fact, he said, that being away as a group and able to concentrate on rugby was something that helped most sides and the Highlanders were no different.

"We're by ourselves and I would like to think that does strengthen our resolve and we will need to as well because we are playing a very good Lions team so we'll need everything going our way," he said.

The extended spell in Johannesburg this week had been good for the side, the best they had enjoyed for several weeks and they were looking forward to the match.

"We're playing a team that put 40 points on the Crusaders, and that's not easy to do so this team is running hot and we've come off an average performance which we've put behind us and we're really looking forward to this match," he said.

The weather had been fine and still all week which had been perfect for the build-up.

"The players have prepared really well and had a good break with good balance and we're feeling pretty good and we just have to make sure we put it on the paddock," he said.

Lions captain Warren Whiteley had been ruled out of the game and as a quality player and leader he would be missed, Joseph said, but like all teams in Super Rugby there was always someone who was forced out in the days before games.
"Generally what happens is the guy who comes in, in this case Ruan Ackermann, the coach's son, instead of coming off the bench will step up and gets his opportunity so there's lots of examples who have done that and stepped up and done really well," he said.

Joseph said comments made by Lions assistant coach Swys de Bruyn that being unpredictable was the way to beat New Zealand sides were interesting. There was a degree of predictability about the way every side played but also being unpredictable was also predictable.

It was possible to say the Highlanders' play was sometimes unpredictable as well, he said.

"You do some things in a game of rugby very consistently and what is unpredictable for the Highlanders, if I can use ourselves as an example, is that we change weekly and you have to be prepared for that. I like what the Lions do, they have shown the ability to do just that [be unpredictable] particularly from set piece and we've just got to be ready for all sorts of scenarios.

"And that's really hard to prepare for other than we've got experience in key positions at nine, 10, an experienced No.8, so you'd like to think the players have played enough footy this year to be able to handle that sort of stuff," he said.

It had been a hard decision to decide on Luke Whitelock or Liam Squire at No.8 but when they decided to go with specialist locks they had to make a decision.

"We like the leadership of Luke, he's played particularly well for the Highlanders and the power and speed that Liam will bring into the game, as he always does, will be a nice thing to have in the second half. I think we have a win-win scenario for the team," he said.

The Lions had really taught the Crusaders a lesson at the scrum last week which had been a surprise. They had some capable athletes at the set piece but they also played a wide, expansive game and were quick as well and the Highlanders were going to have to be ready for all sorts of things.

"Having said that we've got our own brand of rugby and if there's five days preparing four of the five days are about us and how we want to compete in the game," he said.