Hardie's injury start of Highlanders' woes
North of the Waitaki the Highlanders' season has been written off as a disappointing repeat of a 2011 campaign that promised plenty early on but eventually fizzled out.
That's a harsh assessment, however.
This year's edition were in the running for a playoff spot – mathematically at least – right until the last minute of their final game against the Reds in Brisbane although, realistically, their chances disappeared with the loss to the Chiefs the week before.
During difficult tenures under the guidance of Greg Cooper and then Glenn Moore, having a team in finals contention deep into the season was something the Highlanders could think of only wistfully.
Those were, of course, back in the days of four-team semifinals.
For most it hadn't been so long since the Highlanders were regular semifinalists, but there did not seem to be any easy road back there.
That's not to say the Highlanders will be satisfied with their season. Their goal was to make the top six this year, and a ninth-place finish will be considered a failure, albeit with extenuating circumstances.
Any rugby team lives and dies on the abilities of the guy in the No 10 jersey.
The Chiefs will do anything to have Aaron Cruden, even with two bung legs, running their cutter, while Beauden Barrett has been a revelation for the Hurricanes and Tom Taylor did an excellent job of filling in for Dan Carter at the Crusaders.
The Blues were the exception that proves the rule, no clear game-winner emerging between Gareth Anscombe, Tusi Pisi or Piri Weepu.
The Highlanders found themselves looking to Japan for a fourth-choice first-five after season-ending injuries to Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga.
Slade is an All Black at his best, while Jamie Joseph is a big fan of Sopoaga's talent.
The ability of either player is yet to be fully exposed under the Dunedin Stadium roof.
Chris Noakes played better than I thought he could, while Mike Delany provided a solid answer to a desperate SOS call.
I maintain the Highlanders season first developed wobbles when John Hardie went down with a foot injury that required surgery.
For a team that bases so much of its attack around turnover ball at the breakdown, losing Hardie just when he was starting to dominate Super Rugby was a cruel blow for the player and the team.
Sam Cane has grabbed his opportunity beautifully but a rampant Hardie would have kept him honest during the latter part of the season.
What that proved is that the Highlanders must add another string to their bow.
Given time together, the talent available in the backline – Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear – should be lethal.
It hasn't happened yet, but it has to happen next season or much of the hard work done to rebuild the Highlanders will start to look a bit faded.
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