Highlanders' struggle to win back the public

Jamie Joseph was saddened when he first went back to Dunedin to begin preparations to coach the Highlanders in this season's Super Rugby competition.

The former All Black loose-forward played for Otago during their last successful era in the early 1990s and became an All Black in 1992.

Speaking during a visit home to Blenheim last weekend, Joseph said there was a bad disconnect in Dunedin between the rugby organisation – including the Otago team – and the public, and one of the many challenges he faced was repairing that bond.

"It was sad to see how it had deteriorated in the 15 years since I had been down there. It was dire when I turned up in Dunedin. The Highlanders team had only won two or three games the previous season. The Otago team was dead last in the NPC competition. Basically everyone south of Timaru was clinging onto the success of Southland.

"Towards the end of their campaign they had lost the Ranfurly Shield and their season had fallen away so rugby wasn't positive down there. They [Highlanders] only had eight players when I moved down there. It was difficult and then you had to turn them around with no money."

One of Joseph's first, and most significant moves, was to bring on board Tasman Makos coach Kieran Keane and Simon Culhane as his assistants.

While the Highlanders didn't make the Super Rugby playoffs, they improved considerably as a team, highlights including away wins over the Bulls and Crusaders. They won back the respect of their supporters and opposition franchises, although, as Joseph pointed out, that didn't always show at the turnstiles.

"The Highlanders were regarded as a bit of a last resort for the players. They would try to be included in other Super rugby teams before they would even consider the Highlanders. I'm not sure that's the same any more. Players are actually willing to come down here and have a crack. Players have re-signed already ... Colin Slade for two seasons and others. I guess what that means is they have confidence in the team."

Having five players selected in the All Blacks this year was a massive boost to the franchise, Joseph said, and so too will be the new Forsyth Barr Stadium, all of which makes it more attractive for players to come south.

The momentum of rugby in the southern franchise area has continued. Otago are a much better team and near the top of the ITM Cup Championship table, while Southland last week won back the Ranfurly Shield. Joseph is not surprised by that success.

"I think that's quite a natural progression. Simply because those players get a new level of expectation, but also a new level of achievement. Particularly in the Southland team, and five or six players from Otago know what it's like to be part of a team that's going all right at the next level, so they tend to take that back.

"What they get is a good old-fashioned bit of belief that they can get in there and do it. Conversely, when it's not going well, they stop believing, they don't care and that's what it's been like down in Dunedin for quite some time. It's been sad."

But there's a definite positive vibe in the community as a whole about rugby in Dunedin now, Joseph said, and the new stadium helped drive that – although he admits rugby supporters haven't totally been won back yet.

"The stadium is amazing. It will add a real boost to both Otago and Highlanders rugby. It is not overly big but it's very compact and spectators are close to the game.

"You also get the feeling that it's been bad down there for so long, it's really hard to turn them [the public] around. We had a must-win game against the Lions in Super rugby, 5000 people turned up. All Blacks versus Fiji, 13,000 people. They haven't had a team to follow for years and even when we have been successful [this year] they haven't voted with their feet and come to the footy to help us out."

The Marlborough Express