Naholo back, but Li returns home

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Lynn McConnell     01 May 2018     Getty Images

Naholo missed the 29-28 win over the Bulls with a groin strain but had trained with the Highlanders on Monday and was ready to play but fellow wing Tevita Li has a mid-foot sprain and has returned home. He has been replaced by Josh McKay.

While it had been a tough game defensively against the Bulls, they did less tackling than they had against the Blues a week early and a defensive set just before halftime had been defining for them.

Assistant coach Glenn Delaney said: "It takes a lot out of you but the boys are supremely fit and have been conditioned really well and the attitude has been outstanding."

While the Sharks had been up and down during the season, Delaney said they had been up against the New Zealand teams and from the Highlanders' perspective it was a case of forewarned being forearmed.

"If you look at the form they showed against the Blues and then the Hurricanes they were very, very good. So on their patch they're dangerous. They've got a lot of strike power, a lot of offload ability and a strong, powerful, direct running group of forwards.

"They're playing good football and it's going to be a big challenge," he said.

The unpredictability of the Sharks, even at home, meant the Highlanders would leave no stone unturned in their preparation for them.

"We've got a defensive strategy group that work really hard on our game on that side of the ball and they're the guys driving it at the moment and driving our preparation so we go through the same process each week regardless of the opposition," he said.

Knowing what they had achieved in New Zealand ensured the Highlanders were going into the game with their eyes wide open.

"You can plan for a lot of stuff but there'll be things they'll be planning that may be new to us."

Delaney said one of the aspects to be improved from their close win over the Bulls was their scrum. Some lessons had been absorbed and he felt they would be better for it going into the Sharks game.

"We're up against big teams that want to scrum but outside of that we just need a little more ball because we showed when we've got it we're devastating.

"We're really happy with what we did on attack but we could do with just a little bit more of it because that's our game. Redressing that balance a bit more from the defensive side into the attack, a bit more ball, I think will see us with a lot more points," he said.

Improving the possession percentage was something they were working on and he pointed to a couple of penalties conceded at breakdowns that allowed the Bulls to kick for lineouts in Highlanders territory. If they could eliminate those sorts of mistakes it would go a long way towards changing the amount of ball they had.

It hadn't helped that the Bulls were not expansive, preferring to drive from lineouts through the front door in multi-phase play which made it harder to get hands on the ball.

"We did a good job to turn over the ball we did," he said. However, clearing their own ground meant kicking for touch and that started the whole cycle over again.