Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith heaps pressure on Reds: 'They've just won a comp'

Aaron Smith has lit the fuse for what could be a feisty encounter between the Highlanders and Reds on Friday, dismissing the Reds’ claim to be underdogs as standard Australian mind games but also questioning whether they can “get back up” after winning Su

Reds flanker Fraser McReight told Australian reporters this week the Reds were “sort of underdogs” based on the betting markets set by the bookies, but Smith was having none of that argument before the clash at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

“With the Reds, they’ve just won a comp so they can claim the underdog tag all they want,” Smith said. "They’re the best team in Australia and they are coming here.

“I’ve played plenty of Aussie teams saying that, ‘Oh, we are the underdogs’, but they don’t think that.

“They're not coming here thinking they are going to lose. That’s just not the Aussie mentality.”

The Brad Thorn-coached Reds are a big, physical side that can fight for 80 minutes, and Smith and Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody both hailed Thorn’s influence in Queensland, noting that he had created a team in his own image.

They beat the Brumbies in the Super Rugby AU final last week on the back of a dominant scrummaging performance and a refusal to lie down, so something has to give in the opening game of the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition.

“We know that,” Smith said. “If you underestimate the Australians in any way, whether it’s at Super or test level, they’ll bite you. So, it's up to us to get mentally ready.”

The Reds have seven Wallabies in their squad, while former Melbourne Storm superstar Suliasi Vunivalu – a Wallaby in waiting – has been named on their bench.

The injury-depleted Highlanders, who are without about a dozen top-liners, recognise the danger of the Reds but also sense an opportunity, with Smith wondering aloud if the Reds could find the right intensity levels after last weekend’s victory and subsequent celebrations.

“It’s probably going to be really interesting for them to get back up to that level,” Smith said.

“It’s one of the hardest things to do in sport, to get back up from a good performance. I don’t want to give them much fuel but we know how tough it’s going to be, and I’d hate to in a comp and then go and play a team that has had two weeks off.”

The Highlanders have selected a side to meet the physical challenge of the Reds, welcoming back big lock Pari Pari Parkinson to add some grunt in the pack.

Dermody also indicated that a desire for size in the outside channels saw the 105kg Sam Gilbert named at fullback ahead of Nehe Milner-Skudder, who was also unavailable at the start of the week following the death of his uncle, George Skudder.

An ordinary performance against the Hurricanes in the final round of Super Rugby Aotearoa should also sharpen the Highlanders mentally, and Smith said they had every intention of taking the Reds outside their comfort zones.

“We know that we have a lot of things going well for us this week,” Smith said. “They've got to travel, a whole day to get here.

“It's going to be cold. They are travelling from Brisbane and it’s 10 degrees today [Wednesday].

“We've got to use all those things and we’ve got to get them on the stadium and run them around. They are a good team but we’ve really got to take advantage of, for them, a short week, coming off a final, and a big campaign.

“We've had 10 days off. We've got to show them in that first 20 what we are about.”