Highlanders return triumphant

Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo signs an autograph for Lily Genge (10) as her brother Xavier...
Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo signs an autograph for Lily Genge (10) as her brother Xavier Hill (11) waits his turn at Dunedin International Airport last night.
Co-captains Nasi Manu and Ben Smith are greeted by fans at the airport. Photos by Gerard O'Brien.
Co-captains Nasi Manu and Ben Smith are greeted by fans at the airport. Photos by Gerard O'Brien.

Talk about punching above your weight.

The team from the smallest catchment, with the smallest budget and the fewest All Blacks, is only one win away from Super rugby glory.

The Highlanders flew into Dunedin to a tumultuous welcome from about 150 fans just after 9 o'clock last night, after a smash and grab raid across the Tasman which catapulted the side into its second Super rugby final.

Supporters wearing jerseys, flags, scarves and face paint lit up Dunedin International Airport in blue and gold, cheering the Highlanders home after Saturday night's 35-17 Super rugby semifinal win against the Waratahs in Sydney.

Cheers, whistles and shouts of ''Highlanders'' greeted the first victorious players to emerge at the airport - co captains Ben Smith and a patched up Nasi Manu.

Hooker Liam Coltman was taken aback by the reception.

''It's pretty unbelievable to be honest - it's absolutely amazing.''

Coltman was hopeful the team would get similar support when it played the Hurricanes in Saturday's final in Wellington.

''It'll be a packed stadium up there and will no doubt be invaluable to have a few home supporters up there. They were awesome on Saturday - you heard them when we had a few decisions going our way and it certainly lifts the boys.''

The Highlanders outmuscled, and more importantly out thought, the defending champions on Saturday night.

It was a sensational effort from a team which has just three current All Blacks (albeit with another two named in a 41 man squad announced last week), an unheralded forward pack and a couple of Fijian fliers out wide.

But Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph and his assistants have stitched them together and come up with a winning formula.

After the match, the former All Black was candid about how the team has been regarded - perhaps by everyone except its fans: ''It still surprises me.

''In many ways it seems that we've fooled the rugby community - they still don't quite believe in us. What else can these guys do?''

 

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