Highlanders No 10 Mitch Hunt and assistant coach Riki Flutey have let suggestions that Beauden Barrett will play in the Super Rugby Trans Tasman final slide through to the keeper with the skill of Black Caps craftsman Devon Conway.
After Blues No 10 Otere Black copped a knock at training on Tuesday the Blues appeared to indicate that Barrett could be in line to replace him, but if that was an attempt at mind games it appeared to fall a bit flat when the news reached Dunedin.
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Highlanders No 10 Mitch Hunt is tackled by Dane Coles and Reed Prinsep during the Round 5 game of Super Rugby Aotearoa in March.
Thats the first Ive heard, Hunt said. If he is, he is.
Good on them for getting him out there. Its the third time playing them this weekend and its 1-all. If hes there, so be it.
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Flutey also refused to take the bait, noting Barretts obvious qualities but putting the focus on other parts of the Blues game.
Beauden Barrett, he’s a world-class player and hes pretty refreshed, and hes been carving up over in Japan, Flutey said.
So, thatll add a bit of spark to their attack and how they play, if he gets the opportunity to play.
But also, other things were expecting from the Blues are the intensity and physicality that they always bring to the game.
We know that theyve got X factor players all throughout their team, that we need to analyse and take care of.
Barrett is back in Auckland after a spell with Suntory in Japan, where he lost in the Top League final to the Panasonic Wild Knights.
But it remains highly unlikely that the Blues would consider parachuting into the final, even in the event of an injury to Black, given that it would show a lack of faith in the players who have led them into the decider.
The Highlanders also want a laser-like like focus on their own game, and they exuded a quiet confidence on Tuesday that if they nailed the plan they could upset the Blues despite having their own injury worries in Jona Nareki and Pari Pari Parkinson.
It’s going to be a massive night about focusing on ourselves, Hunt said. Its going to be the third time playing them this year.
We know what they bring around their physicality. They’ve got a great group of guys, a lot of All Blacks in their group.
Its going to be tough but if we can focus on ourselves and really nail the detail within our game plan I think thatll take care of itself.
The whole atmosphere of a final should bring the energy, should bring the intensity.
Hunt knows what a title-winning side looks like: in fact, it could be argued that hell be the most experienced player at Eden Park when it comes to success in the big games at Super Rugby and provincial level.
He was part of the Crusaders 23-man in their final triumphs from 2017-2019, and his Tasman side won back-to-back provincial titles in 2019-2020, the second of which was against Auckland at Eden Park.
That has taught him about what will be important in the pressure cooker at Eden Park.
These big games are just in the moments, it’s actually the really small things that matter, he said.
Who can get the least penalties, the least errors … be the tidiest around their game plan.
It’s just us focusing on us. If we try to get our game really clean and tight, its just going to take care of itself.
In-form No 7 Billy Harmon will also have a huge role to play. The Highlanders flanker has been in outstanding form and will go head-to-head with All Black Dalton Papalii, who is part of an enormous Blues pack.
Thats the thing, they’ve got big boys with amazing skill and footwork, the whole business, Harmon said.
Thats going to be massive for us, to stop them getting go-forward.