Each day this week nzherald.co.nz looks at the progress of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises heading into the business end of the tournament. Today: Gregor Paul on the last-placed Highlanders.
Season so far
(1-8) 5th in New Zealand Conference, 15th overall
1. Best result
25-22 v Sharks, Dunedin, Week 12
Intensity, focus, prolonged periods of cohesion, some genuine character and a touch of brilliance, finally the Highlanders put all the right ingredients into the pot and came up with their first win of 2013.
2. Worst result
19-36 v Cheetahs, Invercargill, Week 4
Having only ever had a tenuous grasp on the game in the first 20 minutes, the Highlanders let even that slip over the next 60 and were beaten at the scrum, collision and lineout. They were out-thought, out-played and made to look like a side full of old men who had no business in the cut and thrust of Super Rugby.
3. Best player
Ben Smith - It's not even funny to think just how bad the Highlanders would have been had it not been for the tireless excellence of their fullback who has worked miracles all season.
4. Biggest flop
Spoilt for choice here - could be the erratic and limited contribution of Ma'a Nonu, or the quiet and unimpressive Tony Woodcock. But probably it has been Colin Slade, who until the victory against the Sharks, hadn't looked remotely likely to do anything memorable.
5. 2013 Prospects
They obviously have no hope of the playoffs and are now only relevant in that they can play a few key All Blacks into form at the right time and no doubt break the dreams of other aspiring franchises.
6. 2014 prospects
Not promising for the simple reason they have too many players whose best days are behind them, or, are going to have to be carefully managed in Super Rugby to preserve their All Black ambitions.
Photo - Getty Images
Tomorrow: Patrick McKendry grades the Crusaders.