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Experience, X-factor point of difference in Highlanders championship side

It is shaping as a big game in Sydney on Friday night when the Waratahs host the Highlanders for a re-match of their Super Rugby semi-final last year.

One thing that will be of interest for those of us who believe that the most intense rugby of the competition is being played in the New Zealand Conference is whether that stacks up when this game is played, and when the Blues play the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday.

One thing that spoke volumes to me watching last weekend's Highlanders game against the Lions was the way their experienced players took charge.

That was borne out in the interviews afterwards when Ben and Aaron Smith talked about having a chat going down the tunnel running onto the field and saying, 'We've got to try something different, something special tonight'.

In a lot of ways that spoke of the effect of the culture within rugby sides. The really good teams have got leaders and players who are willing to try something different and have the confidence and experience to do it.

I remember playing in teams when Zinzan Brooke and Michael Jones and others backed themselves. They listened to the coach all week, and got the game plan from the coach who said, 'Here's the main structure' but the gray area is the players with X factor who then say, 'Right, I'm going to do something today'.

It just spoke volumes when you get two experienced players like Aaron Smith and Ben Smith saying, 'Right, I'm just going to have a crack, I want to take control of this game'.

That's the point of difference I reckon between a championship side and a side that just goes through the motions.

The coach is there to facilitate things and get the team working together but the individual brilliance has got to come through and he has got to allow that to happen.

Eddie Jones recently exemplified that with a comment he made about Billy Vunipola. He told him to, 'Play like a Tongan'. That just says everything. He was saying, 'I'm not going to put you in a pigeonhole and turn you into something you're not, play to your strengths'.

Some players need a bit of time and space and some players have got pure out-and-out X factor, and you have to play to those strengths and the more experienced players for the Highlanders identified that and they showed how it could work at the weekend.

The one thing that came through from the Dunedin game was that they looked like they were having fun. Any team that can go out there, play that well and enjoy themselves is a really good sign for the culture within the team.

When that happens it allows a player like wing Matt Faddes to come in and slot straight into the team without a great deal of effort. He is classy anyway and has been deserving of an opportunity at that level for a long time. It's great to see him come in, much like Richard Buckman did when he got his first opportunity, and then just own that position.

Buckman's injury has allowed Faddes to come in. Faddes is one of those names we have heard from the ITM Cup and know about but at the next level it is always a test. The wider community may not know much about him but he's someone with a big future.

Malakai Fekitoa showed some of his best touches and he knows he's got a big year ahead of him and we still haven't see the best of him yet. They are all lining up in the midfield for the places left vacant by Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Charlie Ngatai played well at the weekend too for the Chiefs and we haven't seen the midfield pairing from the Blues fire yet. I think they had a better game, and George Moala certainly did. Elliot Dixon is a special player for the Highlanders, he plays consistently well, he can sniff out the goal-line and he's got a great workrate. He's there or thereabouts. Last year was a real breakthrough year for him so he became talked about for higher honours and I suppose patience is what he needs.

It's a bit like what we've seen with all the No.7s coming through in the last 10 years, there has been the All Blacks captain, who wore that jersey, and I think the captain owned that jersey. Now that Kieran Read is the No.8 it is unfortunate for someone like Elliot Dixon but who knows what chances may come, and he needs to keep going.

Luke Whitelock is also just maturing. He came into the Crusaders as just a 20-21-year-old and now he's got a couple of seasons under his belt and he's someone we know has got pedigree.

The fact the Waratahs lost to the Brumbies in the second round is not the end of the world in Super Rugby. They had the bye last weekend and you don't really hit your straps until the third week traditionally, but having said that I thought the first week this year was pretty good.

Cream always rises to the top and much like the Crusaders who are there or thereabouts every year because they know what they need to do and the teams like the Highlanders and the Waratahs have certainly got enough talent in their ranks to be in the same category.

The Highlanders had a breakthrough year last year by winning it and their confidence as the reigning champions means they know what they need to do and the Waratahs have been there for the last four or five years.

I did have one thought regarding the law variations being applied this year from the Blues-Hurricanes game, and that was in relation to allowing lineouts to be played out from penalties after the full-time hooter has sounded.

To allow the ball to be kicked out from a penalty and drag the game on for another four minutes, while three more lineouts were played, represented the worst law change I've ever heard of.

Why bring that law in to allow another set piece to be played after time is up? It beggars belief. It should be a tap penalty and you can't kick it out, just like it always was.

I don't know what the logic is behind that and while the Hurricanes muscled up and defended really, really well and the Blues are probably wondering how they didn't manage to score, it is no slant on the teams here, but to me it is just a terrible law.

The team in front at fulltime can be a disadvantage having done everything to be in front at the end of the normal 80 minutes only for the losing team to be given another advantage. What might have happened if that law had been in place in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final?

It's a bit on the chin for the defending side. You can be sure we haven't seen the last of it, it is going to get worse and we are going to see a lot more of it.