The unheralded Highlanders Super Rugby team were given little chance at the start of Super Rugby 2014, but they find themselves as the unlikely leaders of the New Zealand conference, but can their run continue?
It is still early days in the Super Rugby 2014 competition, but this Highlanders team looks different to their 2013 counterparts, they actually won on Saturday night and scored four tries in doing it against a dangerous Blues team. But what has changed in 2014?
It now seems like a blessing that experienced All Blacks like Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Maá Nonu have left the southern franchise. While some All Blacks stand up and be counted every time they take the field, you get the feeling that others including that trio saved themselves for the All Blacks jersey, yet plenty was needed of them in Super Rugby 2014.
The Highlanders now have only two genuine world class performers in Aaron Smith and Ben Smith in a team of mainly grafters, while they have now got no choice but to hang tough and win their matches with guts and the odd piece of individual brilliance which will mainly come from one of the Smiths or talented Auckland midfield back Malakai Fekitoa.
The Highlanders started so well against the Blues that they pretty much won the game by halftime, yet the Blues did get back into the game. The Highlanders had to make the most tackles by anyone in Super Rugby Round 2 with 174 although they did miss 28 tackles, but this was still a great effort.
The Highlanders loose forwards stood up to be counted which is no mean feat given that Shane Christie and Gareth Evans are in their debut seasons, while Nasi Manu was in doubt heading into this game. The Blues have a great loose forward trio of their own and on paper should have had it all over their southern counterparts.
In the past, the Highlanders had put their defensive eggs in the breakdown basket to disrupt their opponent’s ball, but opposition teams realised this eventually. It seems that in Super Rugby 2014, the Highlanders have the ability to set some great defensive screens in order to defend more effectively and it worked against the dangerous Blues team.
As a Highlanders fan, I feel encouraged that the unheralded Highlanders team managed to hang on for a win against the Blues and scored four tries. Super Rugby is a long competition, but it has restored my faith in the Highlanders franchise. Historically the Highlanders haven’t had the flash harries, but have had pride in the jersey which has seen them punch above their weight. Hopefully 2014 is a return to the glory days of Highlanders rugby, it is still early days, but they are at least on the right track.