Highlanders need to discover that 'ace in pack'

DEFEATED: The Highlanders fell to their 10th loss in 11 matches this season, going down 35-18 to the Bulls in Pretoria.
DEFEATED: The Highlanders fell to their 10th loss in 11 matches this season, going down 35-18 to the Bulls in Pretoria.

While the country is mulling over the fact Graham Henry spoke his mind about the officiating of Super Rugby, failing to mention the amount of "off the ball" play and every decision being questioned by a multitude of players, spare a thought for the Highlanders as they fly to Perth for a bottom-of-the-table clash with the Western Force.

Who would have believed it?

With a third of the competition to go, the Highlanders are a distant last on the Super Rugby table with one win from 11 games.

Add to this statistic the worst for and against record in the competition, and there is nothing to smile about in the deep south. With 11 All Blacks in the squad, many of them hardened and quality performers in Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Brad Thorn, Hosea Gear, Ben and Aaron Smith, and Ma'a Nonu, this is a franchise where the expectations were huge away back in February but they have now found that "losing is contagious".

Many of these players appear to be unwittingly demonstrating that money and playing for personal glory cannot overcome the human side of the mind which does not click into total positivity unless it has a compelling reason such as belief in the organisation and the desire to be part of a team where individuals take responsibility for the team performance.

With professional sport and franchises in particular being in their infancy in New Zealand, the Highlanders do not have an indoctrinated belief set in place over a period of time based on structures being in place, and a foundation on which to build.

A lack of real identity has been made worse by the open market at Super Rugby level which has created a strong reliance on looking outside to solve the problems, bringing in a lot of players over the past two seasons, rather than looking inside.

As any major world sporting franchise will tell you, the best products are from within.

Jamie Joseph is well thought of as a coach, almost creating mythical status when taking the Maori All Blacks under his wing, and carving out a career as a highly respected leader and strong motivator.

The squad as a whole consists of a hard core of high quality individuals backed up by enthusiastic if less well-known individuals, but certainly backup expected to perform alongside the heavyweights.

However, there are obviously too many square pegs trying to fit into round holes.

This group has just not come together and performed with consistency, intensity or adventure, but most of all with any confidence and cohesion.

Unity and loyalty is now an absolute must. From the council who own the ground, through the old heavyweights such as Laurie Mains, winding down through the workers and management, through to the players, they must develop a shared focus.

Any successful organisation has a flow on down from the top.

Working together with a renewed enthusiasm will be the magic that creates the opportunities in the future.

The "ace in the pack" for the improved Blues performances is the inclusion of Henry in their setup. The Highlanders need to find that "ace" whether it be on the coaching staff or at the top of the management tree, and they need to show some imagination and clarity of thought in the process. In the meantime, they should be planning for next year and beyond, and begin to play with a renewed enthusiasm and excitement which will encourage the fans for next season. Then I'll be able to bring out my old Otago Primary School jersey again.

Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.

Taranaki Daily News