Highlanders' season simply all right

Highlanders midfield back Tei Walden looks towards the ball while Aaron Smith (left) and Sonny Bill Williams look on at Forsyth Barr Stadium in February. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Highlanders midfield back Tei Walden looks towards the ball while Aaron Smith (left) and Sonny Bill Williams look on at Forsyth Barr Stadium in February. Photo: Gregor Richardson
The Highlanders’ season ended last Saturday night with a forgettable second half against the Waratahs and a one-week playoff run. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks back at the season.

Remember those Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer films from years ago?

For those of a younger or older ilk who wonder who they are, Hill and Spencer were a couple of Italian actors who starred together in some spaghetti westerns in the 1970s.

They made about 20 of them and they were popular films right around the world.

The thing about the films were they were not great films. But they were not super poor either.

They were simply all right.

That is how one could describe the Highlanders' season of 2018.

It was not great. But neither was it poor.

It was simply all right.

If you had to rank the performance of individual players out of 10, everyone would be around the seven mark. There would be the odd six and the occasional eight but most were good solid sevens.

The problem for the Highlanders was that to be effective and go deep into the competition, the side had to be better than all right.

It had to be peaking at the right time and have a few more eight and nine out of 10s from players.

That did not happen and that is why the side has its feet up come semifinal time.

The team was very strong at home and did not lose under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium. It enjoyed the wide open spaces of the stadium and, buoyed by a vocal crowd, beat every side which came calling.

Its continuity game was good and it had the ability to turn defence into attack.

Its best effort of the season was against the Hurricanes in June when it came home strongly.

But unfortunately that was followed in its next game, a month later - the test window was in between - by its worst performance, a mauling by the Chiefs in Suva.

The game in Suva helped pay the bills but the side mucked up the whole experience. It got there late, there were too many promotions and the eye went off the ball.

That was followed by a tough trip to Christchurch and so the team did not have a huge amount of confidence going into the playoffs.

Perhaps if it had ended the season with three games at home rather than at the start, it would still be in the running. But that is the draw. You get what you are given and go from there.

The second-half capitulation against the Waratahs was disappointing and it came down to a lack of composure when the heat came on.

One wonders why players give away yellow cards and get so desperate when under pressure. When looking at the Waratahs game, the Highlanders were well ahead and in the box seat when the meltdowns started.

Composure is simply doing the right thing on the field at the right time. It is not simply slowing things down at a penalty

Luke Whitelock played well every game while Rob Thompson and Jackson Hemopo made big strides. Tei Walden also did well but no one player came out of nowhere.

First-year coach Aaron Mauger did not appear to change much, although there was more detail for the players to take on board. But that is just the modern game.

The defence could have been better and there were some heavy defeats, especially away from home. Most of the defeats were down to individual errors and a lack of staying in the game.

That needs to be fixed, although getting turnovers is becoming nigh on impossible these days so defending becomes harder.

The competition was of a higher standard this year too as three weak teams were dumped from last year. Seven of the Highlanders' 10 away games were lost which was a worry.

The biggest puzzle now involves who is going to wear the No10 jersey for next year now Lima Sopoaga has gone.

The side has been looking for an experienced pivot but they are few and far between. Anyone with a few miles on the clock is earning some big coin overseas and cash is their No1 motivation. The Highlanders may be forced to start with either Josh Ioane or Bryn Gatland next year and hope for the best.

All the key players are back next year apart from Sopoaga.

This may be a watershed year for the Highlanders as a raft of players are coming off contract at the end of next season and may look to move abroad.

What better way to finish than bringing home a championship.

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