Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Highlanders impress with run at play-offs

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Flowering talents like Malakai Fekitoa  have brought the glossy topping. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Flowering talents like Malakai Fekitoa have brought the glossy topping. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Take a decent bow you Highlanders. It's been a while since you gave Super Rugby a decent rattle and your season-ticketholders much to cheer about in the best stadium in the country.

Eight victories this season is a huge result. Whatever happens from here the Highlanders have been the business.

They have a roster which raised eyebrows but scarcely a flicker of optimism that they would improve on last season. Remember the Highlanders and their star cast in 2013 finished in 14th place with three wins.

Serious heat came on Jamie Joseph and his assistants, Scott McLeod and Jon Preston, players scattered and the queue of those wanting to head south melted.

Tony Brown came in to coach, discards like Malakai Fekitoa, Shane Christie and Kane Hames signed on and they got to work. There were hiccups like Buxton Popoali'i's health exit and the loss of Brad Thorn's experience to a biceps injury.

There was a more cogent structure to the Highlanders' work, but three losses in their initial five games did not suggest they would challenge for the playoffs.

That mirage is now a realistic target, even with away games left against the Waratahs then the Crusaders, who head their conferences.

Those who dismiss the Highlanders' chances should remember they belted the South African conference winners, the Sharks, away in Durban. That bonus point 34-18 victory and 30-12 loss to the Blues are the only games where the margin has been more than single figures.

The Highlanders have learned to stay in the grind and found that fitness topped by spirit is a powerful combination. Flowering talents like Fekitoa have brought the glossy topping while the Smiths and a workaholic pack have delivered spark and bedrock strength.

Can they continue to prosper?

First up they are away to the Waratahs who cemented a finals spot with an impressive win against the Brumbies, whose bleak style reminds you of their climate. Goodness knows what damage the volatile Michael Cheika would have inflicted on the Waratahs' coaches' box if his side had messed up.

Only six sides have won Super Rugby titles and Sydney is frothing at the gills the Tahs will make it seven.

They have lost skipper Dave Dennis to a knee injury but have outstanding deputy Michael Hooper, a huge pack littered with Wallabies and a glittering backline.

Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale and Rob Horne are class out the back, all of them Wallabies whose profiles overwhelm Patrick Osborne, Richard Buckman, Shaun Treeby and Lima Sopoaga.

The Highlanders are used to that, it's been that way throughout the tournament as they have picked their way steadily to challenge for the playoffs.

- 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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