Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph will look to continue building a team around the All Blacks spine that he's established over the past four seasons.
Joseph, who re-signed with the Highlanders for a further two years last week, said the loss of some experienced players, including the Wales-bound Jarrad Hoeata, at the end of this season would be a challenge.
However, the likes of Aaron and Ben Smith, and now Malakai Fekitoa, were players the franchise could form a team around.
"New Zealand rugby proves time and again that when one leaves, two more are there to take their place. Fekitoa is now a big part of this team and he's with us next year, Aaron and Ben Smith want to win World Cups and want to be part of a successful environment. If we can recruit smart in the offseason and bring some young guys through again, there's no doubt we'll have an opportunity to do the same thing next year and keep pushing on."
Joseph is proud of what's been achieved over the past four years, despite the Highlanders' limited resources.
"I came into a team that was last at that stage. The feedback through the review process was that there wasn't a team culture, no real team identity. To be able to establish that in those first two seasons was a real highlight for me. We don't have money so we did it the old-fashioned way - I remember going to Stewart Island with [Jamie Mackintosh] and picking local players and we tried to turn the thoughts and minds of the local communities with the way we played our rugby."
After petering out towards the end of both those first two seasons, the Highlanders tried to buy in some depth for their squad in 2013, but that was unsuccessful, Joseph said.
"We have had hard working players down here, but not necessarily the best athletes. There was a big move to get better players and it hands down failed. This year has been another year where we have worked hard to create the right environment and the right team culture and it seems to be working."
The Highlanders are fifth on the Super Rugby ladder with three round-robin games in hand, and take on the Chiefs in Dunedin on June 27.
"We are ahead of three New Zealand franchises that have got more money and resources than us, they've got everything compared to us," Joseph said.
"You take real satisfaction out of that, as a team. I know the season hasn't finished yet, but realistically we shouldn't be able to beat those teams. That's a real highlight for our players."
Joseph said the ability of the Highlanders coaching setup to bring on the likes of Aaron Smith, Fekitoa, Liam Coltman and now Patrick Osborne was also a big motivation.
The Highlanders will take on an NZ Barbarians team in Invercargill on Friday night as they look to make a strong charge through the final three weeks of Super Rugby.
Joseph said the game would be a trial of sorts for those players ready to help push the team into the playoffs.
- The Southland Times
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