Burdon: Glad the Highlanders proved me wrong

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 16/05/2014
Jamie Joseph
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TURNING THINGS AROUND: Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph.

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OPINION: Hands up. I got it wrong with the Highlanders.

My only defence would be that there are plenty of others in the dock with me.

Going into the 2014 Super Rugby season, it was difficult to see this team achieving much beyond last year's four wins and its 14th placing.

Beyond the obvious class of Ben and Aaron Smith, this looked like a team of journeymen and inexperienced players who would struggle to make a mark at this level.

It seemed clear that things weren't working under Jamie Joseph, and that he'd have to move on at the end of the season.

Even if he didn't want the job, Tony Brown would have to step up and take over for the good of the franchise.

What a joy it is to be wrong.

The Highlanders have won six from 10 starts, lost three more by two points or less and suffered only one blowout - an 18-point loss to the Blues at Eden Park.

With six regular season games left, three before the June test window and three after, the Highlanders are very much in the hunt for a place in the playoffs.

Along the way we have seen Aaron Smith return to the player he was two seasons ago for the Highlanders, the type of player who helped shape the All Blacks game plan with his speed to the ruck and the speed of his delivery.

But alongside those guys there have been some surprisingly good support acts.

Veteran prop Chris King has played some great rugby, along with rookie Kane Hames, while Liam Coltman has built into the campaign after a slow start.

Joe Wheeler, free from injury, has looked much more comfortable at lock than blindside and there has been plenty of competition for places in the second row along with Jarrad Hoeata and Brad Thorn. Josh Bekhuis hasn't been able to buy a start as a result.

Nasi Manu continues to be an engine, while Shane Christie has been another to take his chance on the openside.

Shaun Treeby and Phil Burleigh have both given good service in the midfield, while Malakai Fekitoa is the big comer after being let go by the Blues last year.

It's been a shame to see the powerful Patrick Osborne laid low by an ankle injury, while Richard Buckman has also performed well above the expectations of many since being elevated from the wider training squad.

The whipping boys have become the good news story of the New Zealand Conference.

Of course, it could yet turn bad.

Injuries and suspensions have taken their toll and should have cost them a win over the Lions last week.

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In a tight conference, the Highlanders are still underdogs to push for a playoff spot for the first time since 2002.

It's tough to see them getting past either the Chiefs or Crusaders, let along the Hurricanes, to win the conference or claim a wild card spot.

Then again, I've been wrong before.

The Highlanders don't need to make the playoffs this year, though.

They've already performed above probably everyone's expectations except their own, and provided some good entertainment along the way.

Playoff footie can wait until next year. It will be nice to look forward to the start of a Super Rugby season.

- Fairfax Media

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