Focus needs to be simply getting better

Timoci Tavatavanawai of the Highlanders in action during the round nine Super Rugby Pacific match...
Timoci Tavatavanawai of the Highlanders in action during the round nine Super Rugby Pacific match between Queensland Reds and Highlanders at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia on April 19, 2024. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
What were your expectations of the Highlanders this year?

If you expected them to win the Super Rugby Pacific title, you were either drunk or deluded.

If you picked them to lose all 14 games, you were just being mean.

My suspicion is you fell somewhere in the middle.

You looked at a Highlanders squad missing Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell, including just one current All Black, loaded with fresh faces, having just six home games (Super Round is dumb, and nobody will convince me otherwise), lacking more than a handful of genuine game-breakers, and clearly trying to rebuild, and you thought: yep, maybe five or six wins, and just slip into the top eight, and that will be decent.

But at the same time, you had some other thoughts.

You considered the exciting recruitment of Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, the arrival of a Welsh test first five, the development of young men like Fabian Holland and Sean Withy, the solidity of class acts like Ethan de Groot and Billy Harmon and Sam Gilbert, the fact many other Super Rugby teams were looking weaker, and the return of Jamie Joseph in something of a Landers Godfather role, and you thought: wow, this could actually be a fun season.

So here we are.

The Highlanders are 10th, on 11 points, with six games to play.

You can obviously highlight the fact they are but two points off the eighth and final playoff spot; you can also point out they are four points off last, and indeed will be last if they lose to the Force this weekend and the Crusaders beat the Rebels.

It all seems a bit deflating after starting the season with a win over Moana Pasifika, a gutsy effort against a classy Blues team, and a win over the Waratahs.

Even the loss to the Chiefs included some satisfaction at staging such a thrilling comeback.

Since then? Sorry to say but the Highlanders have been flat-out poor and have been comprehensively second-best in every game they have played.

It is perfectly reasonable to point out mitigating factors (a couple of key injuries, the youthfulness of the squad) and urge some patience and perspective as the Highlanders start rebuilding from the ground up.

It is also perfectly reasonable to suggest the Highlanders have been a disappointment.

What is most concerning is the feeling they have gone backwards in recent weeks.

They were never going to win every game this season but fans would, I suspect, have accepted losing as long as there were clear signs of progress, and there has been little sense of positive development in recent weeks.

From here, I would suggest the Highlanders’ entire focus needs to be simply getting better. Start working out which of these players are building blocks for the future and which, sadly, are not. Give the youngsters more time when appropriate. And don’t even bother thinking about the playoffs.

At the end of five straight losses, some questions to be posed:

•  Is a record of two wins and six losses really the end of the world? Should we have some patience?

•  But didn’t the Highlanders themselves say they were sick of being merely competitive and wanted to be genuine contenders?

•  Is head coach Clarke Dermody feeling the heat?

• Three starting hookers, three starting first fives, five starting locks and four starting No8s? In just eight games?

•  Now do you realise how good Hugh Renton is?

• Is it not just a little strange that the Highlanders have two international players on the books and both were playing Dunedin club rugby on Saturday?

• Should more be expected of men like de Groot, Pari Pari Parkinson and Jona Nareki?

• Is a best-case scenario picking up four more wins (Force, Moana Pasifika, the hopeless Crusaders and the Drua) and finishing sixth or seventh?

• Is a worst-case scenario (gulp) winning just one more game (Moana Pasifika) and claiming the wooden spoon?