Rugby-Highlanders bullish on Smith return for Crusaders clash
WELLINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) - All Blacks fullback Ben Smith could be rushed back into the Otago Highlanders side for Friday's quarter-final against the Canterbury Crusaders as Aaron Mauger's side prepare for Super Rugby's 'Mission Impossible'.
Smith trained last week but was a late withdrawal ahead of their 49-12 demolition of the New South Wales Waratahs in Ivercargill last Friday as the Highlanders took a safety-first approach to their co-captain's return from a serious hamstring injury.
Beating the double defending champions Crusaders at Rugby League Park, where the hosts are undefeated in 28 successive matches, will require all hands on deck, however, and Smith's leadership could be vital for the Highlanders' hopes of causing an upset.
"Bender's (Smith) better than he was last week and he was very close last week so we're hoping he'll be available," assistant coach Mark Hammett told local media on Tuesday.
With a total of six wins from the regular season, and one from their past four games, the Highlanders have no business being in the playoffs for some critics but they hit form at the right time against the Waratahs.
The rampaging display of flanker Liam Squire was particularly encouraging, and a reminder of what the Highlanders have missed during the injury-prone blindside's long absences through the season.
It will nonetheless take something special to topple Scott Robertson's Crusaders, who hammered the Highlanders 43-17 in Christchurch in their last meeting in April and have never lost a playoff at home in the history of the competition.
Hammett said the Highlanders did not regard themselves underdogs, however, and would be eager to take the game to the nine-times champions.
"We're not feeling like (underdogs)," he said. "Of course we respect them. They've deserved their position but we really want to express how we play and what we do.
"We know that they are a good team, but we also know that when we put things together we're a good team as well."
The winner of Friday's match will next meet either the Wellington Hurricanes or the Bulls.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)