Planet Rugby

Highlanders surpass expectations

22nd July 2014 19:08

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Entertaining: Highlanders

Beaten in Durban, the Highlanders finished their 2014 campaign with far more credibility and respect than they started out with.

Hands up, we expected very little. That's being generous; we didn't expect them to make it out of the bottom three. And absolutely not to make the playoffs. Instead, they made the knockout round for the first time since 2002.

On top of that, we had no idea - like the rest of the rugby world - that Malakai Fekitoa would become the breakout star of the competition.

Even now, going through the list of those players that abandoned ship before this season - Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Hosea Gear, Jamie Mackintosh, Andrew Hore, Colin Slade - you wonder how they've managed to pull it off.

Yet reaching the playoffs and pushing the Sharks all the way last weekend isn't down to luck or fortune. Lots of crucial ingredients have been moulded together to create a dogged side whose preference to play fast and wide has won them plenty of new fans.

The statistics back them up. Only the Waratahs and Hurricanes made more clean breaks and beat more defenders.

Nobody in the competition got past more tacklers than Fekitoa's eye-watering 65. Ben Smith comfortably made the most metres with 1265. Shane Christie, Nasi Manu, Joe Wheeler and Kane Hames are all in top ten tacklers of the competition, the most representatives from any side.

Superstars like Aaron and Ben Smith have certainly been key, but it's the men around them who have risen up.

Fekitoa is now an international name, when before 2014 he couldn't even get a game for the Blues.

Patrick Osborne played on another level in Durban, flinging outrageous offloads and sowing panic in the Sharks' defence. Richard 'Barracuda' Buckman on the other wing is a handful.

Then there are the unsung heroes. Hames, Elliot Dixon, Manu and Christie deserve so much credit. Jarrad Hoeata, in his final season before joining Cardiff Blues, has been a warrior.

Maybe though the big difference has been Lima Sopoaga. This was the year the young man from Wellington really fulfilled his potential, not to mention producing some outstanding goalkicking to settle tight contests. He was the fourth-highest points scorer this year with 178.

Of course given the team have now been knocked out, there have been shortcomings. You only had to see how the Sharks scrum manhandled the Highlanders around Kings Park to know where one of their weaknesses lie. Their scrum and lineout were the second worst in the competition this year.

But their tenacity has been undeniable. Hence why the Sharks went into the encounter with a hint of trepidation after what Fekitoa and co. had done to them in Durban earlier in the season.

That April win was at the top of a pile that includes defeating the Hurricanes twice, consequently nudging them out of the Wildcard spots, and also beating the Blues and Chiefs.

If only their set-piece had held together in the final few weeks of the season. The tries they've produced have been outstanding, none more so than the three scored on Saturday by Fekitoa, Hames and Phil Burleigh.

What their success underlines is that big names are not everything. Spirit and a will to win truly are.

Before their trips to Sydney and Christchurch this month, the Highlanders picked up a point in every single match they played in. Without every single one of those points or bonus points, there's no way the Highlanders with an 8-8 record would have otherwise made it into the last six.

Jamie Joseph and his squad should take a lot of pride from their exploits and look forward to 2015.

There was no expectation about the Highlanders' prospects at the start of this year, but there will now be plenty in the season ahead. They should be proud.

by Ben Coles

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