Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Highlanders bringing smiles to the south

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Ben Smith in action for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty
Ben Smith in action for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty

This time last season the Highlanders were taking hits from all directions.

Their injection of hired help brought nothing but gloom as they lurched through their opening eight games of Super 15 without a victory. Slinging mud in a southerly direction became regular weekend entertainment for the rest of the country.

It took until early May for any reverse when the Highlanders stung the Sharks 25-22 and hurried their slide out of the playoffs.

This year the Sharks, under the direction of recycled supremo Jake White, are still clinging to the top of the table despite getting their noses bloodied again by the Highlanders.

There would have been few in New Zealand other than relatives and intensely fierce supporters who would have backed the southern men to cross the Southern Ocean and deal to the South Africans in their Durban lair.

Not with the Sharks riding so strongly at the head of the series and primed for their farewell match at Kings Park before heading offshore.

The Sharks lost their superb skipper Bismarck du Plessis and several others to injury before the game but were outplayed in most aspects of the match.

The Highlanders were the only side to win away from home in the latest Super 15 round in a victory coach Jamie Joseph described as one of the best in his time with the franchise.

A year ago, a similar result encouraged the Sharks' slide and did nothing for the Highlanders. Will it do the same this time?

In comparison to last season the Highlanders have over-achieved. They have won five of their eight matches with the sort of play which raises expectations about their players and the rest of the series.

Many are starting to laud Malakai Fekitoa as an All Black centre and are getting equally excited about the talents of Lima Sopoaga and Shane Christie. They have proved to be strong value and Fekitoa has scored several sparkling tries against crumbly defences and nailed some heavy hits.

Does that potential persuade the All Black selectors he is worth a crack ahead of Ryan Crotty, Francis Saili and Tom Taylor, who float as midfield back-up to Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith?

What about the Sharks? They were shielded with seven of their opening nine games at home and now head overseas for a month against the Rebels, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues. There is a notion the Sharks are the least troubled of the South African sides by homesickness when they travel. Theories like the supremacy of the Chiefs have come under great stress lately; now that scrutiny will go on the Sharks.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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