The first season of the Landers

Highlanders halfback Stu Forster makes a burst against the Blues in a pre-season game at ...
Highlanders halfback Stu Forster makes a burst against the Blues in a pre-season game at Carisbrook. Looking on are Blues players Carlos Spencer and Zinzan Brooke.
In 1996 it was a brave new world. Professional rugby had arrived in New Zealand and a new competition was about to begin — the Super 12. This was fresh territory for 
the players and coaches, administrators, even fans. Sports editor Steve Hepburn looks back at the 1996 Highlanders and how the game became professional and how the season panned out.

The 1996 Highlanders were in some ways the picture of how the franchise would perform for the next 25 seasons.

Plenty of excitement, a bit of dash and some good wins.

But in the end coming up short.

The first side was based on the successful Otago side of the 1990s.

The team had won the national championship in 1991 and then made the playoffs in the following years.

So the Otago Highlanders as they were known — Otago was dropped about 15 years later — had 19 players from Otago in its 31-man squad.

Highlanders first five-eighth Stephen Bachop busts through the attempted tackle of ...
Highlanders first five-eighth Stephen Bachop busts through the attempted tackle of Waratahs loosie Michael Brial in Sydney. Highlanders flanker Kupu Vanisi is in support. PHOTOS: ODT FILES

Many of them were very experienced Otago players.

David Latta had played more than 150 games for Otago and Stu Forster and Paul Cooke had played 100 games for the province.

Though players were amateur in the early 1990s many were basically fulltime players. Forster was the assistant groundsman at Carisbrook but simply walked across the ground once a day and that was job done. Others worked for the rugby union or a sympathetic sponsor.

But with professionalism coming fully into view, players could now leave their employment — no matter how artificial it was — and be fulltime rugby players with remuneration.

It was good money for those days — $50,000 and another $15,000 if a player turned out in three national provincial championship games.

Latta was a builder in Balclutha, and though he played just the one season with the Highlanders before retiring, he said it was no different than playing for nothing.

Highlanders winger Jeff Wilson is supported by flanker Paul Henderson against the Reds ...
Highlanders winger Jeff Wilson is supported by flanker Paul Henderson against the Reds at Carisbrook.

"The thing about getting paid was not a big thing really. You still were playing a game you loved with all your mates and that is the way it had always been," Latta said.

"There was a lot more lawyers and accountants around, so that was something a bit foreign. We were doing more training. Two or three more trainings than what you normally had."

The gym and getting bigger and more powerful became a key part of the game and Latta admitted this was completely foreign to him.

"It was the first time I had ever done any of that. A lot of the players were university students who had a bit more time than me. I was out physically working on days off and that kept me fit."

Martin Toomey was the fitness trainer for the side and said the side had evolved out of what the All Blacks and Otago had been doing in previous years.

"The guys were super fit, really. Just what had been happening in the last years of the amateur days when guys trained really hard," he said.

"Many of our side had been involved in the All Blacks the year before and that was all based around fitness and playing an expansive game.

Highlanders loose forward Taine Randell attempts to fend off the tackle of Blues wing Jonah Lomu...
Highlanders loose forward Taine Randell attempts to fend off the tackle of Blues wing Jonah Lomu in Pukekohe in 1996.

"The younger guys were really receptive to many of the new methods. We did a lot more training and went to the gym. For some of the older guys it was tough to get used to what was now expected. But a lot of those guys who had been around for a while worked in physical jobs that keep them naturally fit."

Then there was the free gear which many took advantage of. Relations all of a sudden had new tops in the wardrobe.

The team had a few weeks in camp and the first game was at Carisbrook on a sunny early March afternoon against a powerful Queensland side, stacked with Wallabies.

The home side simply blew the team from Queensland away, winning 57-17.

Matt Cooper started that day at fullback for the Highlanders and he said one of his ambitions was met that day.

"I always wanted to play at Carisbrook and hear that Otago chant from the terraces, and be in that team. And it was great."

Highlanders centre fullback Matthew Cooper attempts to ward off the attention of Waratahs ...
Highlanders centre fullback Matthew Cooper attempts to ward off the attention of Waratahs back Matt Dixon while Richard Tombs holds on to Cooper’s leg.

Cooper was one of the seven players drafted from outside the Highlanders region. Those were the days where provincial links dictated where players were picked.

The top 24 players in the region could be protected by the franchise and then those left over went into a draft where other franchises could pick them off.

Cooper did not make the Chiefs and went south to Dunedin staying with his older brother Greg’s family.

Greg Cooper had been drafted by the Blues and moved to Auckland as the Cooper family swapped islands.

Franchises directly contracting players was introduced in 2010 and that put to the end the drafting of players.

The Highlanders went on an early run and won their first three games. The side then got walloped 59-29 by Northern Transvaal — the Bulls — in Pretoria and then lost the following two games.

It then beat Natal at Carisbrook, Cooper kicking the winning goal. This game was played on a Wednesday afternoon in front of a sparse crowd.

Martin Toomey
Martin Toomey
Matthew Cooper
Matthew Cooper
David Latta
David Latta
Cooper admitted there was a lot more spare time than previously. He had left a job at New Zealand Breweries to play for the Highlanders.

One of the most vivid memories of the season for Cooper was being in Cape Town and hearing the news of his first born Harrison arriving way back in New Zealand.

"I was rooming with Isitolo Maka when I found out. Then Gerry Simmons and Gordy Hunter came in and got out the wine and we had a toast to Harrison. That was something I always remembered. Gordy was special like that."

Hunter was a special coach to the players and coached the side for just the one year.

The Highlanders ended up winning only two games in the last eight matches and finished eighth out of 12.

Toomey said the side probably lacked depth and suffered from injuries. It fell away and in the final game lost to the Brumbies 70-26 in Canberra, which is still its heaviest defeat.

Latta said looking back his memories were just a lot of fun and some laughs.

Cooper said he was proud to be Highlander number four and to have played in the South.

"Obviously the game has changed greatly since back then. New Zealand rugby has always had that mystique around it and been able to produce excellent players and team . . . but with the advent of professionalism the other countries have caught up. The game is a lot closer because of professionalism."

Toomey said there was a lot of laughs in 1996 and he was sure there would still be today.

"I think a lot still goes on but all of it behind closed doors. The game has changed but you are still a bunch of guys who get incredibly close together. Things are going to happen."

 

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter