Upstart Highlanders a house of cards and pain
Will fatigue, injury and suspensions be the Highlanders' undoing?
We may know the answer to that after tonight's game against the Hurricanes. Both teams are on the same number of competition points and desperate not to lose any more ground on the Chiefs and Crusaders.
The next three weeks represent a stern test for the Highlanders - the 'Canes at home, an in-form Crusaders team in Dunedin and a tricky trip over to Brisbane for the Reds.
Handled well, it could be the springboard the Highlanders need to push for the playoffs after the June test window - if they can keep body and mind together, that is.
"That's the challenge in front of us," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said.
"We've got some key and experienced players out, but the guys that we have left, we have a pretty good starting group to pick from. That's why the competition is so difficult, everyone has their turn at injuries and we are getting our turn now. It doesn't help that we've got three in jail."
By 'jail', Joseph is referring to a worrying propensity for Highlanders players to beat a path to the judiciary this season.
Prop Chris King will miss tonight's game after copping a one-week suspension for an illegal hit.
Kurt Baker also returns next week after a six-week ban for a lifting tackle and Brayden Mitchell will be available the following week for the Reds after a three-week suspension for the same offence.
Kane Hames earned a week off earlier in the season for a dangerous charge on Blues lock Hayden Triggs.
Joseph put King's hit on Lions No 8 Warren Whitely down to the actions of a tired player and pointed to a blameless career of more than 100 Super Rugby games.
However, with all the attention the dangers of lifting tackles in rugby and league had received this season, some players had been slow to learn the lesson, Joseph said.
Discipline is yet to cost the Highlanders any battles - they haven't lost any games because of penalties - but it could cost them the war.
Meanwhile, Brad Thorn, Patrick Osborne, Craig Millar, John Hardie and Josh Bekhuis are all on the injured list, and a number of players have been hauled out of Dunedin club rugby this week to bolster the Highlanders squad.
"Every week, every game, has its own sort of life. Last week we didn't train hardly at all because we'd come back from Africa, I think what we saw in the last 20 was guys off their feet. This week it's a different game, for the experienced players, they know how important it is and we have to prepare accordingly. We've got injuries but we just have to keep going forward."
New Zealand derby games were always intense, while the likes of Joseph have special connections with Wellington.
Other motivations would also come into play tonight, he said.
"The All Blacks have been selected now, so there'll be players disappointed who thought they'd done enough to be selected. There will be some elation for those guys who are in the squad, but want to get into the 'real' squad. There are lots of reasons to play, they just need to make sure they show up and perform."