Highlanders hope they can shake spoilers tag

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 31/03/2013
Hosea Gear, Highlanders
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PUSHING ON: Highlanders wing Hosea Gear splits the Queenslad Reds defence at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin tonight.

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Pride alone is a dubious source of sustainable motivation.

After five straight losses, that's the unwanted predicament the winless Highlanders now face. The next 11 weeks will test their reliance and ability to conjure up concrete inspiration.

The stoic southerners can afford to drop one more match this season but the playoffs already appear a distant dream. They seem destined to be spoilers - the tag attached to teams that upset others despite having little to gain themselves.

Players endure gruelling preseason training in the hope they will be in the mix come finals time. Adjusting to the realisation that those goals are all but gone is a tough pill to swallow. From here, recovering from the disappointments is a mountainous task.

Not through a lack of application or effort but Jamie Joseph's men just can't catch a break. Most notably, without the departed Adam Thomson and injured Nasi Manu, their loose-forward balance has suffered. Their traditional vigour at the breakdown and defiance in defence is missing. With the exception of Hosea Gear, breaking the advantage line has also proved problematic.

While injuries have played a large part, there's also the lingering argument the Highlanders' big-name recruits haven't packed the expected punch.

Emerging talents such as centre Jason Emery and flanker T J Ioane displayed rare energy and hunger in the 34-33 loss to the Reds in Dunedin on Friday. First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga changed the tempo to lead a late, ultimately futile, charge and recover from his forgettable outing in Invercargill.

But these repeated, heartbreaking defeats are taking their toll, more so on senior players who appreciate how draining a long Super Rugby campaign can be when results don't flow.

The one-point loss to the Will Genia-inspired Reds sure won't boost morale. A concerning lack of desperation marred the Highlanders' first half, where the damage was done. Discipline is another frustration, with captain Andrew Hore yellow carded. Jarrad Hoeata was the culprit last week. Narrow victories, the type the Highlanders made an art form of last year, invigorate confidence. Conversely, losses create self-doubt. Coach Jamie Joseph reluctantly admitted as much.

"Last week's performance against the Chiefs really knocked them. We put a lot of pressure on them [Chiefs] and won all the stats but couldn't come away with the win. That took the wind out of our sails.

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"It was a good performance despite the result. The same guys who took the field didn't have the same intensity [against the Reds]."

The danger now is that weighty burden becomes hard to shake. Playing for pride might work against the Blues next week, but maintaining it for the rest of the season is challenging.

"The Highlanders, we've got a lot of character. That's not our way," fullback Ben Smith said. "We'll be back at training and working really hard to improve our game."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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