Super Rugby 2019: Highlanders will stick with substitution policy despite Chiefs capitulation

Don't expect the Highlanders to shy away from substituting key players, despite Saturday night's meltdown against the Chiefs.

With 12 minutes to go in Dunedin, the southern men led 28-17, before All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith was replaced by Kayne Hammington.

The Chiefs closed the gap to four points before a puzzling decision by the Highlanders to kick for goal with two minutes remaining gave the Chiefs a sniff.

The rest is history, with Angus Ta'avao's try and the following conversion levelling the scores and, despite a final burst, the Highlanders three away crucial competition points.

But assistant coach Glenn Delaney has fended off questions about their game management, claiming they have faith in their entire playing group.

"I think either decision was the right one," Delaney said on Tuesday.

"If we win the kick-off, we wouldn't even be having this conversation, but fair play to the Chiefs. They won that moment and gave themselves a chance to score.

"We gave ourselves a chance to snatch it with that turnover, but it wasn't to be."

When asked if complacency had snuck into the coaching booth in the final quarter, Delaney was equally firm.

"You never think like that," he said. "We have had the sort of season where you can't take anything for granted, but we trust all our players to perform and play well.

"We get all our players involved and we trust our bench. You will always have those conversations about how best to use the 23, but rugby is no longer a 15-man game.

"The reality now is you can tactically and strategically use your bench to your advantage.

"We were totally comfortable in the decision to bring Aaron [Smith] off and bring Kayne on. He's been big for us this season and played a lot of minutes."

For his part, Aaron Smith doesn't think the result would have differed had he been on the park. The 30-year-old believes they should have put the game to bed much sooner.

"We had moments to win that game but we will take a heap of learnings from the last 10 minutes," Smith said. "It was a pretty crazy finish, but we shouldn't have given them the chances we did."

Smith returned two weeks ago from an ankle injury - three weeks ahead of schedule - and is feeling great as the Highlanders push for the playoffs.

"I'm getting there," Smith said. "The start in Tokyo was great - I just need to keep getting that game time and get back to full match fitness.

"My legs are responding really well to the hard training and the ankle is holding up well - I'm pretty much back to 100 percent. I'm just trying to do the best I can for the team and get us wins.

"I would love nothing more than to be back in the playoffs. The last couple of years we have been bombed out early, but I feel like this particular group has a lot of potential.

"We have a lot of exciting players - a lot of youth and we are also getting some All Blacks back."


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