'Dark times' motivate Highlander Aaron Smith
Aaron Smith described last year's disastrous Highlanders season as one of the most difficult periods of his life.
Following a recruitment drive that landed the Highlanders All Blacks Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn, there was optimism the franchise, who already had internationals Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison, Colin Slade, Jamie Mackintosh, Jarrad Hoeata and Aaron Smith on their roster, would qualify for the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Instead their season disintegrated into a miserable affair.
The Highlanders finished second last, securing just three wins and over the off-season lost Hore (retired), Nonu and Woodcock (both to the Blues), Gear (France), Ellison (Rebels), Slade (Crusaders) and Mackintosh (Chiefs).
Coach Jamie Joseph has been forced to fill the vacancies left by those All Blacks who had more than 300 test caps between them.
Halfback Smith, who along with fullback Ben Smith has been rested from tonight's pre-season match against the Crusaders, states some positives can be salvaged from that grim period.
"The first eight months of last year were some of the hardest times of my life. But in saying that you are sort of glad about it because if everything is smooth sailing you wouldn't appreciate what you had.
"There were definitely some dark times there but the boys never gave up and never turned on each other.
"On a personal note, it wasn't the best year of my life with the Highlanders but I was happy to finish it so strongly [with the All Blacks]."
Smith denies the Highlanders got carried away with the media and public hype of how their impressive team - on paper anyway - had them as title contenders.
But he does concede they were guilty of looking too far ahead and neglecting the systems that could earn them better results.
"I don't think we read into the hype. I think we just got a bit ahead of ourselves. We just needed to focus on short-term goals, not long-term ones. We were worried about results during the game but not the process.
"When you worry about the outcome you don't play and train like you normally [would] because you are so worried about getting the win."
Onlookers during last weekend's game against the Brumbies in Queenstown, which the Highlanders won 15-11, have admitted to being unfamiliar with a number of faces in the Dunedin-based side.
Smith, who was briefly replaced by Fumiaka Tanaka last year as Joseph tried to get him to rediscover his form, remains optimistic.
"We are just trying to set realistic goals, really. We have got to do the work before we start talking about championships going really well.
"The whole mindset is a lot different. I think we would all like to put that  behind us."