Highlanders now believe they're good enough

JEFF WILSON
Last updated 05:00 29/06/2014
Malakai Fekitoa
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STAR OF THE SHOW: Malakai Fekitoa makes another bursting run for the Highlanders.

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OPINION: My old coach Gordon Hunter used to have a nice way to motivate us.

After telling us that man for man on paper we shouldn't win this game, he'd challenge us to each outplay our opposite numbers. He'd then say, with a glint in his one good eye, that if enough of us did that we'd have a pretty good chance of coming out on top.

That's exactly what Jamie Joseph's Highlanders are doing through this fairytale Super Rugby season of theirs - now just one win away from the most unlikely of playoff appearances.

These Highlanders have very little of what you would call star power - though the three they do have are very, very good. But what they do have is team power -- a committed group willing to play hard and for each other.

Last year they had a big contingent of All Blacks and won three games all season. This year most of those big names are gone and they're 8-6 and within touching distance of the post-season.

In a way it's been addition by subtraction. Because they've lost so much experience and firepower, they've had to make up for it in other ways. So they're playing as a team, and winning as a team.

It's not quite complete, but it has already been one of the great turnarounds. That tells you a lot about what a team sport rugby is. You need talent, but you also need complementary players who understand their roles and bring enthusiasm.

The Chiefs had it the previous two years, and will be searching for it again as they bring in some new pieces for next year; and I get a feeling it's what John Kirwan is trying to find in Auckland, though he hasn't hit the right formula just yet.

In many ways the Highlanders' success so far says as much about their supporting cast as it does about Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa who have been their backline stars. Richard Buckman, Shaun Treeby, Pat Osborne and Lima Sopoaga have seized their moments and played their parts.

Up front they've just got a whole bunch of guys prepared to work. They've also dialled back the high risk-high reward style of the last few seasons, and found a much better balance.

The Highlanders are clearly a group on the way up, and you'd suggest if the Blues could find their answer at 10 they'd also find themselves heading in that direction. The big challenge for the Highlanders will be continuing to improve. You wonder whether they're just having that dream season, or can they continue to roll on with guys like Joe Wheeler, Elliot Dixon, Ma'afu Fia and Buckman playing out of their skins.

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Performance is often determined by motivation, focus and energy. But it also helps to have world-class players and the two Smiths have been that.

They also look well on the way to adding a third in Fekitoa. He's by no means the finished product, but he definitely has match-winning qualities. He has been the find of the season - not just for the Highlanders, but for New Zealand rugby.

There's no substitute for pace and power, and he has that in spades. Give him half an opportunity and he can hurt you. He also brings a fearlessness that's inspiring.

That intent with ball in hand is something others want to emulate.

He's given the All Blacks an option at centre they didn't know they had - and that's a bonus. Throw Sonny Bill Williams and possibly Richard Kahui into the mix, and suddenly the midfield stocks will soon be overflowing.

Then there's Ben Smith, who should win back to back Super Rugby player of the year awards. It takes something special to unseat, or overtake, a world-class player like Israel Dagg. But that's what's happened.

It's a joy to watch Smith realising his potential and it's hard to think of anyone else as influential in our game at the moment.

He's the first player you think of after every Highlanders game, and we saw it again on Friday night when he was involved in everything.

Clearly Jamie Joseph deserves credit for making the adjustments he's needed to, but the contributions of the two Tonys also should be acknowledged down south.

Tony Brown's influence tactically and his relationship with the players and trust they have in what he's doing has been a big part of their much-improved game plan.

And I see a lot of Tony Gilbert's influence in their environment, even if his role is strictly behind the scenes. There's a calmness, maturity and assuredness about what they're doing that has the Silver Fox's stamp all over it.

Joseph speaks a lot about belief. This group now believes they're a good team and that's half the battle.

- Sunday Star Times

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