More lows than highs for stoic Highlanders

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 01/07/2012
Highlanders
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HEART BREAKING: Highlanders' players Chris King (left) and Nasi Manu react to the loss to the Chiefs.

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When the Highlanders reflect on this season they will sense all too familiar frustrations.

In their case, history has, indeed, repeated in unpleasant fashion. Their predictable decline is cause for concern.

The stoic southerners' playoff hopes are, yet again, prematurely shot after going down with typical fighting spirit to the top-of-the-table, yet patchy, Chiefs in Dunedin on Friday night (27-21).

In the last two years under Jamie Joseph's passionate leadership the Highlanders have regained respect and developed a hardened edge after languishing out of contention for too long. Joseph recruited wisely with Tamati Ellison, Andrew Hore and Hosea Gear bolstering this year's squad, which has the makings of a quality outfit.

But you can bet his internal expectations were greater than missing the finals. This season will not be regarded as a success. Mid-table was not the objective.

The Highlanders hinted at raising the standards, but, ultimately, have fallen short on improving from last year. They wanted more.

"In the back of our minds we knew this was it, do-or-die. We wanted to fulfil the ability within our team and try and create more belief than the Highlanders have had in the past," Gear, who produced an impressive, industrious display against the Chiefs, said.

"We want to consider ourselves contenders. Not the battlers or underdogs. We want to match it with every team."

The late-season downward trend is almost a replica. Two years in a row, the Highlanders were the form, near-unstoppable, team of the opening rounds, winning seven of their first nine games. In 2011, they won their first three on the trot. This year they knocked over the Chiefs and Crusaders in consecutive weeks, proving their pedigree, on the way to a four-match winning streak. The similarities are spooky.

Joseph has got the pre-season recipe right; his highly motivated men surge out of the blocks at Usain Bolt-esque pace and rip into their opposition like hungry wolves.

But he needs to find the magic juice that gives his side the added stamina to reach the top echelons of this brutally competitive competition. Only then will he be satisfied.

Last year, the Highlanders fell flat when it counted, losing their final four matches. With only pride to play for against the in-form Reds in Brisbane next week and then finishing with a bye, they are now in danger of ending this season with a hat-trick of defeats. Again, spooky.

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"They've certainly got a good enough side to be in the playoffs but are now going to miss out," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "They will look back on some games they should have won. They're not far away."

Key injuries to crucial playmakers Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga were cruel, almost terminal, blows that derailed momentum and stifled their attacking potential.

The Highlanders base their game around relentless, ferocious raids at the breakdown. Maintaining that taxing physical intensity is challenging. There is a sense they need another aspect to their arsenal to take that next step and confirm their potential.

"We wanted to be contenders for the whole year," Gear said. "In some games we've done that, some we haven't. We are heading in the right direction. Looking ahead, if we can keep our core group together things will improve."

- Sunday Star Times

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