Rugby: Promising signs amid defeats for Highlanders

Highlander's star no 8 Steven Setephano is collared by Hurricanes winger Ma'a Nonu.  Photo by Craig Baxter
Highlander's star no 8 Steven Setephano is collared by Hurricanes winger Ma'a Nonu. Photo by Craig Baxter
It would be a lot easier to hand down a mid-season judgement on the Highlanders if they had been soundly thrashed in each of their four games.

They were living down to expectations, we could have written. Too many rookies, not enough class, inevitable results.

But, much like the Super 14 itself, a trite summation of the Highlanders' efforts over the first month is not easy to produce.

For one, they have clearly played better than expected. There were a good number of critics and faux experts who revelled in dire pre-season predictions of some sort of looming meltdown in the south, conveniently ignoring the fact the Highlanders have never lacked heart and application and have finished well clear of the bottom of the points table for the last five years.

Forecasts of disaster have so far proven off the mark. The Highlanders have been competitive, quite promising and occasionally really exciting to watch.

They have unearthed another powerful front row, finally given blockbusting No 8 Steven Setephano a chance to shine, allowed Adam Thomson a chance to show what a special talent he is, and made us all practise our pronunciation of Fetu'u Vainikolo.

And, if it were not for some strange refereeing decisions and poor goal-kicking, they could have been sitting on two or three wins and feeling quite good about the world.

But.  They have lost four straight games. That means the Highlanders have made their worst start to a season, twice as bad as the two losses they started with in 1997 when they would finish dead last in the old Super 12.

It is all about wins and losses at this level, not rebuilding or character or promise, and because of their dismal record, the Highlanders should not expect too many pats on the back.

They have struggled to score tries, botched a lot of lineouts, had on-field discipline issues and at times made really dumb decisions, perhaps reflecting the naivety of some of the rookie players.

Goal-kicking has been a major weakness. Four players have been used, and none has looked convincing. Landing your kicks is Rugby 101 and it must be becoming increasingly frustrating for the Highlanders to reflect on games that might have been won but for off-target boots.

In general, the Highlanders have simply let themselves down in the area of execution.

Wayward kicks, spilled passes, promising backline moves spoiled by the wrong decision, poor line-outs - these are the sorts of things that kill a team.

Maybe they deserve some latitude because they are such a new-look, inexperienced bunch. But it would be nice to see more polish in the coming weeks.

A look at the draw reveals the second half of the Highlanders' season shapes as more difficult than the first.

There has a clash with the as-yet-unbeaten Sharks, that nasty three weeks in South Africa, and seasonending derbies with the mighty Blues and Crusaders.

Tough times approach. And it is time the Highlanders stood up.

Add a Comment