Highlanders’ hopes in eye of the beholder

Half-full ...

Playoffs time, baby!

Them plucky little Highlanders are off to the big show and are perfectly placed to stage a fairytale run to a second Super Rugby title.

They have all the advantages you can imagine — zero expectations, the surprise factor, the pressure being on the other team that 99.9% of people will be tipping to win.

Not to mention they are fresh off a very gutsy performance on the road in Melbourne.

The Landers have a cracking good forward pack — seriously, would you take any other team’s props or loose forwards? — that will grind the soft Aucklanders into mincemeat.

Then the backline!

The two best halfbacks in the world, rugged midfielders, VERY underrated outside backs ... what is not to like?

I keep coming back to the issue of expectations. Just about everyone expects the Blues to stomp all over the Highlanders tonight. And, granted, form tends to back that up.

But sport is about the unexpected. Highlanders by 10, folks.

... or half-empty?

Ye gods.

Four wins out of 14. FOUR!

You can support your beloved Highlanders all you like but you cannot, with a straight face, say they deserve to be in the playoffs.

They have been underwhelming bordering on mediocre for too much of this season to come to any conclusion other than they will be swiftly and soundly whipped at Eden Park by a team that, oh yes, has won 13 games in a row.

A Landers forward pack that is equal parts yeoman and very good simply gets too little out of a backline that just offers so little by way of composed creation or dazzling excitement.

The Highlanders are what they are right now: a team lacking in X-factor that is set for a period of pain until either some talented youngsters come through or the franchise manages to strike gold in the recruitment market.

The Blues by 20, I’m afraid.

Silver and gold

New Zealand Rugby has made a massive mistake.

New Zealand Rugby has made a fantastic decision.

Where do you stand on the long-awaited call to jump into a $200 million bed with Silver Lake?

I’m retaining a sort of healthy scepticism that will likely not dissipate until the real effects of this deal are starting to emerge five or 10 years down the track.

Some form of private investment in the All Blacks had started to seem inevitable, and this deal comes with promises of untapped potential and revenue increases that could safeguard our national game and provide a much-needed boost to the grassroots.

But promises are not always guarantees. We don’t know what will happen next in the world, and we don’t know for sure this won’t be just another step in turning the All Blacks from a team — the people’s team — into a commercial entity.

It’s happening, and we just have to wait and see how it pans out.

’Tis the season

The Last Word, like many sports reporters, is famously antisocial and tends to prefer time at home in the evenings ahead of literally any function.

But he was something of a social butterfly this week as he attended (and helped present) the Waitaki Sports Awards in paradise on Monday night, and backed up with a seat at the Otago Sports Awards last night.

What a region we live in, and what extraordinary achievers we have in the sporting arena.

Bravo to all winners.

En garde

It is a huge weekend for Fencing South, which is hosting the New Zealand President’s Cup at the Edgar Centre.

Top fencers from around the country will be competing in foil, sabre and epee.

They start with "poules" to establish rankings then move to elimination bouts.

Bowl along today or tomorrow for a look.

Stat of the week

It is possible Rafael Nadal has been knocked out of the French Open by the time you read this — sorry, Rafa.

But before his semifinal, do you know what his career record was at the only grand slam played on clay?

It was, wait for it, 105 wins and three losses, for the obscene winning percentage of 97.2%.

Absolutely bonkers. Surely the most dominant athlete-tournament relationship in world sport.

Fare thee well, Rabs

Sad to hear the voice of rugby league has called his last game.

Legendary Australian commentator Ray "Rabs" Warren announced this week he was stepping away from the microphone at the age of 78.

Warren, who called 99 State of Origins and 45 grand finals, was magnificent at his craft.

Andrew Webster, a lovely writer at The Sydney Morning Herald, summed it up perfectly when he referred to Warren’s "velvet voice as welcome as a cup of hot chocolate or smooth cognac when sitting in front of the TV on a chilly Friday night".

A look at some lighter moments from the French Open

American Madison Keys has help from the umpire to untangle her necklace from her hair during her...
American Madison Keys has help from the umpire to untangle her necklace from her hair during her second-round match against Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Bolger Rune, of Denmark, gestures to the crowd for silence during his quarterfinal against...
Bolger Rune, of Denmark, gestures to the crowd for silence during his quarterfinal against Norwegian Casper Ruud. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Daria Kasatkina celebrates match point against fellow Russian Veronika Kudermetova during their...
Daria Kasatkina celebrates match point against fellow Russian Veronika Kudermetova during their quarterfinal. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Spectators shelter from the rain during the second round. PHOTO: REUTERS
Spectators shelter from the rain during the second round. PHOTO: REUTERS

 

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