Two more road trips for Highlanders' fairytale

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 29/06/2014
Jamie Joseph
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SO CLOSE: Jamie Joseph and the Highlanders are one win away from finally reaching the Super Rugby playoffs.

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Nothing changes for the Highlanders this week. Yet it all changes if they can wring one more win out of their final two Super Rugby matches.

One more victory from two daunting road trips and Jamie Joseph’s men can write the final chapter in their own rugby fairytale.

After recruiting princes and playing like paupers in 2013, this year they’ve turned that riches to rags story on its head.

Friday’s stunning 29-25 victory over the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium – their eighth of this remarkable season – advanced the Highlanders to 42 points. That’s tantalisingly close to enough for a top-six finish..

It’s been 12 years since New Zealand’s southernmost franchise last played finals footy, which is a long time between sups of the Speight’s nectar. But now they’re 80 minutes from ending the drought and maybe 160 from securing the most unlikely of home semis.

They conclude with visits to the Australian and New Zealand conference leaders – the Waratahs in SydneyntsG next Sunday, followed by the Crusaders in Christchurch.

You need to peer into the crystal ball pretty doggedly to see the win almost certainly required.

For Joseph it’s about keeping things on the down-low, and not changing anything. They need two weeks of what’s got them this far – nothing more, nothing less.

‘‘We have to have an attacking mindset,’’ he said yesterday. ‘‘But we’re such an inexperienced team it all comes down to how we prepare. We don’t play till next Sunday, so we’ll sit back and watch the Waratahs and hopefully they [and the Brumbies] ding each other up like the Kiwi teams do.

‘‘We’ve just got to keep things consistent because it’s been working. There are no special recipes; we’ve just got to do the work.’’

But if they were looking for a confidence-booster, Friday certainly provided it. The reeling back to back champions were in desperation mode; but met a Highlanders team with resolve and no little skill.

Joseph felt it was ‘‘must-win’’ for both sides, but never told his guys that.

‘‘We’ve achieved a lot in one season anyway. This wasn’t one of those ‘if we win it will be a bonus’ type of speeches. These players have got some magic desire to keep on kicking on. But the win was crucial for our belief.’’

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Despite being out-scored three tries to two, the Highlanders got up because they were the more clinical. They collected points (five penalties in total), established a lead and closed things out from in front.

Joseph especially liked the poise from his young men.

‘‘I thought we showed composure and smartness in that second half. Defensively it was a major improvement on the previous game, our bench made some good decisions, and we closed the game off nicely in that second half.’’

An AC injury to prop Ma’afu Fia was the only ding from Friday (Stags prop JP Koen has been added to the squad) for a Highlanders outfit riding the form of its All Black trio, the leadership of Nasi Manu, some standout scrummaging from Kane Hames and the remarkable rise of wing Richard Buckman.

Joseph was rapt all three of his All Blacks slotted back in so seamlessly, but had special praise for the on-fire Fekitoa:

‘‘He kept his game very simple -- ran very hard and tackled very hard. We don’t complicate it for Malakai. All his coaches have done is provided a good environment and cared for him and he seems to have done the rest.’’

Then there’s Buckman, the ultimate over-achiever who surely personifies these dogged Highlanders.

‘‘He reflects our values, that’s for sure,’’ says Joseph with a grin.

‘‘I’m not sure he always gets due credit. People see his commitment on defence, and his workrate, but he’s also our fastest guy over 10 metres, and is incredibly fit. He was our player of the day, and some of the moments he had inspired the others.’’

Seeing Buckman excel from the fringes, seeing Fekitoa make the All Blacks out of his stint in the south, you ask Joseph if he might just be building a franchise that future stars might want to come to.

‘‘With contracting players, it’s like a good restaurant -- all word of mouth. With our stadium, with the way we want to play, with the success we’re starting to have, it does become a little easier. Up in Auckland there’s oodles of Malakais, you’ve just got to find them and create a good environment so they can play.’’

- Sunday Star Times

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