Editorial: From zeros to heroes
It's a fickle world of sport, and nobody knows that better than Jamie Joseph.
The tough ex-All Black flanker promised to bring grit and fight when he replaced Glenn Moore as Highlanders head coach in 2011, but in the 2012 season they finished ninth, then last year blew out to a dismal 14th out of 15 teams.
An ever-diminishing Southland representation in the squad has not endeared southern rugby fans to the local Super Rugby franchise, and neither has the axing of Invercargill as a full-scale Super Rugby venue.
But an honest performance on the paddock is still regarded highly here, and there's been a lot of honesty thrown about by the Highlanders this Super season.
So much so that, after a run of eight victories, the Highlanders need only one more win on the road to make it to the finals playoffs for the first time since 2002.
It's the stuff of fairytales when you consider the depth of the hole this team had to climb out of. Unlike last year, when the squad was bolstered by the inclusion of under-achieving All Blacks, this season they've played with a ton more ticker.
Marquee players Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and the explosive midfield excitement machine Malakai Fekitoa have all contributed.
Previously unheralded stars have shone brightly, among them the fearless skipper Nasi Manu, non-stop wing Richard Buckman, and flanker Shane Christie, at the expense of Southland's injured star sideman John Hardie.
First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga has played his part too, shaking off the flaky texture to his game and even surpassing the legendary Tony Brown's Super season scoring record last week when he smashed past 150 points.
It's no coincidence in the Highlanders' dramatic rise this year that Brown himself is now an integral cog in Joseph's coaching staff.
Brown was the kind of high-protein footie player favoured by the discerning southern rugby palate - tough, courageous, flawlessly efficient, and not a bit up himself.
The man is contagiously respected in rugby circles and that aura is rubbing off on his young charges.
We don't want to shout them up too much. That can bite you on the bum. But let's just say go the Highlanders. If they can sneak that win they need there'll be a party at Tony Brown's place like it's 1999.
The Southland Times