Smith & Smith shine in Highlanders' win
The softly-softly approach taken with the team's only two All Blacks appears to be paying off for the Highlanders.
Ben and Aaron Smith were barely sighted during the pre-season, making their first appearance in the opening round win over the Blues.
While their team-mates were playing friendlies in Motueka and Newcastle, the two end-of-season tourists were completing a mini-pre-season of their own with the Highlanders trainer.
When you only have two genuinely world-class players it must be tempting to squeeze maximum value from them, but Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph learnt last year that big names only produce big games when they are properly rested and motivated.
"I think we are reaping the benefits of that," Joseph said.
"I know one thing is for sure - we can't expect those two guys, and every team has their top players, and what we really need is for them to play well when they play and for everyone else to try their hardest to raise the bar to their standards.
"I think you got that from some certain players - Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames, Joe Wheeler. All guys new to this level of football have performed pretty well for the Highlanders and their biggest challenge is just consistency."
The hard truth, however, is that no matter how the firm of Smith and Smith is handled, they cannot carry the Highlanders through an entire season.
In the games the Highlanders have won - against the Blues and on Saturday night against the Hurricanes - and even in the close loss to the Chiefs, other players have stood up.
Fekitoa's tackle on Conrad Smith in the second half at Dunedin Stadium helped create the momentum which led to Phil Burleigh and Patrick Osborne's tries on Saturday night, which effectively sealed the game on top of Lima Sopoaga's goal kicking.
The Highlanders' fragility was exposed in the final quarter, when they needed most of the 23-point buffer they had built up, but that should not undermine the good work done earlier.
"Our seven game is not like the seven game of the Crusaders," Joseph said.
"Generally if you are seven out of 10, you win matches but we need to play our best to be successful on the scoreboard."
Perhaps the biggest criticism to come from the Hurricanes' defeat was Joseph's propensity for pulling players like Sopoaga and Aaron Smith when the game is still in the balance.
It was costly in the loss to the Force and history began to repeat on Saturday, particularly when Jarrad Hoeata was the victim of a team penalty and the Highlanders were down to 14 men for the final 10 minutes.
It cannot be a coincidence that the Highlanders banked their second win of the season upon the return of Brad Thorn to the second row.
His gigantic run up the middle of the field in the first half deserved to have someone score a try at the end of it, but you could see how much the result meant to him when he celebrated after the game by doing a "caterpillar" on the Dunedin Stadium turf.
The feeling within the team, after the crowds had melted away into a crisp Otago night, was one of weary relief.
"It would have been good to be 4-0 but we just have to learn from the games we've played, and get back into training on Monday and look for a big game against the Blues on Saturday," Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith said.
"They are a dangerous team.
"They've got a lot of X factor, they showed that against the Crusaders."
- The Southland Times