Time for Highlanders, and fans, to push on

EXPECTATIONS HIGH: Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith will need to play well this year if his Super Rugby team is to win.
EXPECTATIONS HIGH: Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith will need to play well this year if his Super Rugby team is to win.

Here's your chance to get in on the ground floor.

Anyone can jump on the bandwagon of a successful team, but it takes a bit of fortitude and faith to help push the wagon out when it gets stuck.

Which is where the Highlanders are now.

If you were scouting around for a team which has plenty of improvement in it, which will ensure you have to do the ''hard yards'' as a supporter before the glory comes, the southern franchise just might be for you.

We aren't saying you have to support this team - professional franchises are about attracting their own fans and keeping them.

It's about getting people through the gate, turning them into season members and hoping they snap up the overpriced merchandise.

Most of all it's about winning, not something the Highlanders have mastered under Jamie Joseph.

They are hoping to change that, but they face a tough opening assignment against the Blues in Dunedin tonight.

Even with Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu being massaged back into the set-up, and Jerome Kaino still in Japan and Benji Marshall continuing his rugby education from the bench, the Blues will start a comfortable favourite under the roof at Dunedin Stadium.

Joseph claimed a memorable Blues scalp in the return game last year, picking up the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy along with it, and he wasn't getting bogged down with which Blues lineup shows up in Dunedin.

''It doesn't really matter with those blokes because they've got X factor right across the board. Our focus has been on ourselves.

''We've watched them play - in the preseason they haven't necessarily won on the scoreboard, but they've tried a lot of things, done things they won't do in competition games. Crikey, they can score tries and we have to have our defence sorted out if we are going to be successful.''

Super Rugby season openers in Dunedin tend to be great occasions.

It's university orientation week, there will be a buzz around the city, and the notorious Zoo Stand will be heaving with merry students.

''The crowds have always been pretty good at the stadium. I understand there have been 16,000 tickets already sold and the Zoo is pretty much gone,'' Joseph said.

''The students are in town, it's the first game of the season, it's a good team to play against because you know there are going to be tries being scored.''

Unlike last year, when the Highlanders started the season with a shopping cart full of shiny All Blacks, there is no hype for the team to live up to.

Maybe tonight the Highlanders can start to create some.

The Southland Times