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Highlanders ready for tough Chiefs challenge

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Lynn McConnell     12 Feb 2019     Getty Images

Flanker James Lentjes summed up the Highlanders' attitude when saying, "The Chiefs got us both times last year so we owe them one. It's tough to go to Hamilton and win, we know that so we're prepared to go up there and get stuck in and hopefully get a result."

While enjoying freedom from injuries which have been part of his rugby life over the last two seasons, Lentjes was looking forward to not having the usual concerns with law changes due to it being a Rugby World Cup year.

Life as a flanker was one where there was constant emphasis on keeping the contest at the breakdown alive and players needed to be smart. Referees were erring in favour of the attacking side.

The tackler had few rights these days, he said.

"He can't come back in from either side now, he's got to go back round through the gate and by the time you do that at Super Rugby level there'll be cleaners there so you're pretty much out of the game.

"So, it's more as an arriving player that you are going to compete for the ball," he said.

Absorbing 10 new players had been an important part of the pre-season.

"Obviously they come in from different parts of the country and we have to get them up to speed with how we like to do things down here but they've come down and adapted well and they're all looking pretty good," he said.

Part of the process also involved more senior players taking them under their wing and showing them what was on offer in Dunedin away from rugby and developing friendships that then benefit them on the field.

Lentjes said he was hopeful of avoiding the injuries that had curtailed his time in the past and had enjoyed a beneficial pre-season when he was able to be involved from the outset, rather than having to miss the valuable hard work put in before Christmas due to injury recovery.

He had put on four kilograms in weight and was feeling in good shape which was important because it was clearly going to be pretty competitive through the loose forwards this year.

"I'm good to go, I'm not starting on the back foot this year," he said.

A benefit the side had enjoyed this year was getting through their warm-up games without major injuries and all the squad had been able to have time on the field.

"We've tried a few new things which seem to be working so we're happy with that but obviously it all changes when the real thing starts and points are up for grabs and there's a bit more pressure there. We're looking forward to that and we're reasonably happy with how we went in pre-season," he said.

Halfback Kayne Hammington said the squad appeared motivated this year and the pre-season had been very positive.

Hopefully the pre-season had laid the foundation for the side, it was something they had targeted in building their bodies up for a long campaign.

There was some quality opposition among the halfbacks and he would be looking to push his case as well as he could.

Having played alongside All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith for two seasons, Hammington said he had learned a lot.

"He's a bit of a master in the nine jersey so whatever little bits I can pick up here and there I'm pretty stoked," he said.

Hammington will be extending his stay in the south having signed with Otago for the Mitre 10 Cup campaign instead of staying with his Manawatu side of recent seasons.

He said he enjoyed Dunedin and was pleased to have a chance to play for Otago.

"It's a good place to make home for a couple of years," he said.