Out of the fairytale team of 2014 comes the feelgood story of the season. The Sunday Star-Times talks to unlikely Highlanders hero Richard Buckman ahead of today's visit to the table-topping Waratahs.
Richard Buckman has a lot to thank his Highlanders team-mate Joe Wheeler for. Not only has the Tasman lock bestowed upon him one of the catchier nicknames in the business, but he's immortalised the Hawke's Bay wing's breakthrough Super Rugby season in a YouTube ditty that's worth five minutes of your time.
When the Highlanders were in South Africa, team hard case Wheeler decided the name of the diving charter boat they were on that day was tailor-made for their surprise packet right winger. So Buckman became "The Barracuda", the sobriquet stuck like Super Glue and before long there was even a music video to complete the anointment.
"He stitched me up a bit there," admits Buckman, who will make his 15th straight start on the right wing for the Highlanders in Sydney today. "He told me the video was for a different purpose, but it was pretty impressive. I've got a bit of stick for it but it's probably got my name out there a little bit more."
Wheeler's efforts (with some vocal backup from skipper Nasi Manu) are worth watching as he lampoons Buckman in a clever rendition of Barracuda, to the tune of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah.
With a blissfully unaware Buckman hamming it up for the video track, and Wheeler's carefully crafted lyrics telling the story of the "white battler", who came south looking for his chance, one of rugby's feelgood stories is writ large in pixels.
Truth be told, Buckman's is a tale deserving of such lavish treatment. While Ben Smith has been their best player, and Malakai Fekitoa their big mover, it's the 24-year-old Buckman who most exemplifies Jamie Joseph's vastly improved Highlanders in 2014.
Not only has he made the most of his unexpected opportunity - from wider training squad at season's start to ever-present in the No 14 jersey - but he's also wrung nearly every ounce out of his abilities as he's emerged as one of the stars of this side.
Last year, with a cast of All Blacks past and present, the Highlanders won just three matches all season.
This year, with most of those big names gone, they've won eight of 14 games thus far and need only to get up either today in Sydney, or next weekend in Christchurch, to complete one of the great turnarounds with their first playoff appearance in 12 years.
The Highlanders have revelled in their underdog status, and nobody has personified that better than Buckman. He's not especially fast, athletic, big or strong - indeed he'd probably fail the body-fat test that's so in vogue these days - but he's done everything with full commitment, enthusiasm and no little effect.
"I wasn't expecting to play at the start of the season, and thought I was going to have to work into it," he reflects. "It just happened there were a few injuries, and with Bucky's situation (Buxton Popoali'i was ruled out with heart problems) it gave me a chance I had to take with both hands.
"I put it down to a lot of hard work and the coaches giving me an opportunity. I was waiting probably three years at the Hurricanes for a chance, and it just didn't arise with the players they had there. This is why I came south, and I'm rapt the way it's worked out."
Buckman talks about workrate, physicality and defence as being his "points of difference" and says he's thrived in a team culture of playing for each other.
"It's just been a dream run for me and I'm trying to enjoy it while I can, because I know rugby doesn't last forever."
Former Highlander, All Black and now Sunday Star-Times columnist Jeff Wilson feels Buckman probably doesn't get the credit he deserves for a game that's got a little more to it than many realise.
"He's deceptively quick, deceptively strong and has a good understanding of the game," Wilson says. "Watch him play and he's a right-place-at-the-right-time sort of footballer. More importantly, he plays with a real physicality, and never lets you down on the defensive side.
"He does play hard and that's what people notice, but he's got more than that. What he's got, he maximises, and because of that attitude he doesn't seem to get affected by pressure too much. He's one of those guys who's about doing the best he can, and his best is usually good enough."
As for today, Buckman accepts that it's a tall order in a city where they've won only twice, and against opposition they've beaten just four times in 15 match-ups, and who seem to have found their A game in a big way.
"It's a massive game - they're top of the table for a reason, but we've just got to keep believing in ourselves and keep doing what we've done all year. We've been written off by a lot of people, but we've got a bunch of guys who are enjoying proving everyone wrong."
None more so than the slippery fish they now know warmly in the south as the Barracuda.
- Sunday Star Times
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