Patrick McKendry 's Opinion

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Five reasons why...The Highlanders are a throwback to another era

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Andrew Hore and the Highlanders sit atop the New Zealand conference after four rounds. Photo / Getty Images
Andrew Hore and the Highlanders sit atop the New Zealand conference after four rounds. Photo / Getty Images

APNZ's Patrick McKendry looks at how a throwback approach has worked for the table-topping Highlanders.

1. Team bonding
Putting players through testing situations to break down barriers and share a common experience is so common in professional sport it has become a cliche. The Highlanders, though, have gone back to basics. Forget confidence courses, army training or wading through mangrove swamps, these guys organise their own fishing trips in the middle of Foveaux Strait. Once you're out on this unforgiving stretch of water between Bluff and Stewart Island, there is no calling it quits if you feel like heading home for a snack and a lie on the couch. It's a form of commitment seen in their playing style.

They're also not averse to a few beers. It's understood that after the team's second pre-season game in Queenstown, against the Chiefs, the players were allowed to, shall we say, let their hair down. Some didn't make it to bed until 6 o'clock the next morning.

Unorthodox? In modern sport, yes. Effective? You can't argue with four victories from four matches.

2. Attacking the breakdown
The Highlanders are the one team in the competition who seem to have this phase mastered. Where others might see a ruck as unwinnable, the Highlanders see every one as an opportunity. Last season they put numbers into the breakdown and caused problems for the opposition, while somehow still being able to hold their line out wide. This year they are doing just as well but by committing fewer players - although it helps to have an expert ball-snaffler like Andrew Hore on board. The modern game has turned the breakdown into a rugby league-style wrestle-fest with accompanying defensive line. The Highlanders' commitment and, at times ferocity in this area, is the closest thing to rucking we have seen in a while.

3. Jamie Joseph calls the shots
The coach-as-the-absolute-boss approach clearly still has its place in modern sport - just think Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson - despite the move towards a more consensus-driven way of making decisions to cater for Generation Y players. In the last decade, top-level New Zealand rugby has made a shift towards consulting players, especially senior ones, before making important decisions. Mark Hammett's clear-out at the Hurricanes is an obvious exception to this rule but in other areas the former All Blacks hooker is known to carefully weigh his players' thoughts. Joseph, though, seems to be from the Ferguson mould. There's nothing like keeping your players guessing, either, which is what he did during a pre-season training session. Setting his players several tasks, he and the rest of his management then left. What the players didn't know was he had set up a video camera in the grandstand so he could observe. It's understood a player who left the session early has paid the consequences. Put it this way, would you argue with Jamie?

4. The Zoo
Otago Rugby's administrators might not like to be reminded of Carisbrook, given it became one of the reasons the union almost went into liquidation before they were bailed out. But the Highlanders have transplanted one of the best bits of the 'Brook to their new indoor stadium. We are talking, of course, about The Zoo - a zone for the seething mass of students to shout their lungs out and generally enjoy themselves. It's one of the reasons why the atmosphere was so good for their first two home games and it's hoped that continues. New Zealand rugby suffers from playing in atmosphere-free zones and the game here desperately needs all it can to reverse dwindling crowd numbers.

5. Kees Meeuws
The Highlanders' scrum coach can't be accused of not walking the walk. Desperately short of props in pre-season, the big bloke suited up on the reserves against the Blues and played the final few minutes. Not bad for a 37-year-old who made his Super Rugby debut in 1997. As throwbacks go, he is a living and breathing one.

- APNZ

Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby writer Patrick McKendry began his journalism career 20 years ago and has worked in newspapers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He worked in a communications role on his return here before joining APN before the 2011 World Cup.

Read more by Patrick McKendry

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