Rugby: Will Injuries Cost Highlanders a Playoff Berth?

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIMay 10, 2011

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 29:  Adam Thomson of the Highlanders looks on during the round 11 Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Blues at Carisbrook Stadium on April 29, 2011 in Dunedin, New Zealand.  (Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images)
Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images

Colin Slade, Adam Thomson, Kurt Baker, Siale Piutau, Kade Poki, James Patterson, Elliot Dixon, Dave Te Moana, Shaun Treeby.

That is the current injury list for the Highlanders Super Rugby side.

It is always hard when team's are forced to make changes because of injuries, but even harder when the list is so long and consists of so many key players. And the success of the Highlanders season may hinge on their ability to do so.

Adam Thomson has been arguably the best forward in the competition and his loss will be huge. His ability at the breakdown has been unmatched for the Highlanders and has been key to their success. Thomson isn't expected to be back for another month.

Another key loss comes in marquee signing Colin Slade. Slade broke his jaw in the Highlanders first preseason game and only made three appearances on his return before breaking his jaw once again.

Slade's loss is felt not only because of his strengths as a player, but because of who is there to replace him. While Lima Sopoaga and Robbie Robinson are both good young talents, Sopoaga lacks experience at this level and has been struggling with injury himself, while Robinson is far better suited to fullback where he is allowed to play a more open game.

Tony Brown proved to be an adept fourth option, but has also come down with a hamstring injury.

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But the real problem lies in the outside backs. The Highlanders now have three of their four wingers injured, two of which will not return. These three are Siale Piutau, James Patterson and Kade Poki. Again, while these are all big losses, it is the options to cover them that will hurt the Highlanders. 

Telusa Veainu will certainly get a look in, after making a some minor appearances for the side earlier in the season.

Who will fill the other wing isn't as clear. Ben Smith has had experience on the wing, but the Highlanders will be reluctant to shunt one of their stars out wide where he will be less involved unless absolutely necessary.

Robbie Robinson was used in the weekend but constantly looked lost playing out of position, while Matt Saunders will likely be needed to fill the No. 12 jersey until Shaun Treeby returns.

Ben Atiga has been called into the squad, but he isn't as fast as he once was and may lack a yard of pace to play out wide in this competition.

The other man who could fill the vacant spot is youngster Kurt Baker, who is yet to make an appearance in 2011 after sustaining a back injury. However, Baker isn't due back for another two weeks, so he won't be an option until after their bye-week.

So, where to now? It clearly is a dire situation for a side who were flying so high after such a long time at the bottom.

It's the outside backs that are the major problem. While the losses of Thomson, Slade, Dixon and Te Moana will be felt, they can be covered by other quality players, such is the depth of this Highlanders outfit.

But as can be seen above, they just don't have the players to cover their midfield and back three injuries. And it's not as if they can be blamed. Any side would be struggling with this many players on the sidelines.

So what does this mean for their playoff chances?

Obviously, they have greatly diminished. However they can't be written off.

They still boast arguably the most physical forward pack in the competition and will not lack passion no matter who they put on the field. To replace Adam Thomson they will shift Jarrad Hoeata to six and bring in All Black Tom Donnelly to lock. While Thomson will be missed, they should still be fine with this combination.

Likewise, Sopoaga has shown he could grow into the No. 10 jersey despite his inexperience.

This should see that they will have some sort of direction and Jimmy Cowan will be able to help with the decision making, boasting a ton of experience at halfback.

What they lack now is the attacking threat that they have newly found this year. Kade Poki has proved to be a livewire, while Siale Piutau has also been dangerous, Patterson too has shown he can be hard to stop at times.

But with this gone, a lot of the attacking will be left up to Ben Smith. Smith has shown just how good he is at finding space this year, but given the lack of other threats around him, this space will be much harder to find.

This will translate into less tries for the Highlanders, but will also go against their gameplan of running everything and wearing down the opposition forward pack, making wins that much harder to come by.

In their remaining five games, they take on the Hurricanes, Lions, Force, Waratahs and Blues.

Of these the Lions and Force should be ones the Highlanders would like to think they will win. The Waratahs and Blues are ones they could win if the injury situation improves over the next month. However they will be doing well to beat the Hurricanes this weekend.

While the Hurricanes haven't been at all good this year, they will be facing a Highlanders side who are at their absolute weakest. To go with this, the Hurricanes have some of the world's most dangerous outside backs, making the Highlanders situation even more costly.

The key will be to get on top up front, even more so than normal. But it will certainly be a huge challenge for the southern men.

And from there who knows? It would be an impressive effort to win in what is a nightmare situation, but don't write them off.

If there is one team that has the right attitude to pull through, it is certainly the Highlanders and with a bit of passion they might well find themselves in the top six in two months time.