Playing sport is supposed to be fun, even in an age when jobs, careers, and entire organisations are at risk when results and performances don't quite go to plan; even in an age when every effort is talked about and analysed, when criticism is meted out 140 characters at a time; even in an age when the concept of professionalism has trumped the notion of participation: yes, even today, if you're not enjoying what you are doing on a sports field, you'll never succeed.
Enjoyment is the furnace for the special alchemy required to transform effort into victory - the Chrysopoeia of the Highlanders last year the outstanding example in Super Rugby. The Highlanders took in the offcasts and unwanteds and in turn those men found a formula for creating gold. They did it all with a laugh, with a southern humour that each adopted as his own. They were a joy to watch and a joy to be around.
It feels now, however, that whatever magic spell the Highlanders were able to conjure last year has begun to lose its power to sustain that special feeling that grew within the side and took them all the way to one of rugby's great fairytale finishes. The gold is turning back to lead, and the Highlanders are in need of a new formula for fun.
That kind of magic the Highlanders wielded last year can never be recreated. People have changed, some have gone, and still others have arrived. Rather than trying so hard to recapture the unretrievable spirit of their maiden title victory, this team is desperate to re-evaluate what makes them tick, and why. They have the desire, and the personnel, to do it. They're still a great bunch of men, too. Yet, the pressure of winning in 2016 has begun to squash the very spirit that in 2015 meant they couldn't lose.
Contrast the Highlanders with a team not too far up the highway. The Crusaders look and play like a side that has very much rediscovered the esprit de corps that leads to success.
There has always been a sense of pride in the Crusaders jersey, an understanding that every man in the team knows what he must do to live up the impressive legacy of the franchise. Unfortunately, for too long that was a message that was not so much discovered by the team as force fed to them. This Crusaders team, however, somehow feels different. By all accounts the trip to South Africa was one of the best the team had in years, not for what happened on the field, but for how well the team responded to each other off it.
Look at Israel Dagg, back in the side and playing with a freedom we haven't seen from him in three seasons. Andy Ellis has become the team's self-styled tiny enforcer. Codie Taylor and Ben Funnell are job sharing with no fuss and maximum impact. Richie Mounga is week-by-week growing into his role, encouraged by the knowledge he has the full faith of his team.
You can't bottle this chemistry, this alchemy, this kind of chain reaction. It lasts for a season - two at best - and when you recognise it, you just have to ride it out, to trust in its power and to see how far it can take you. The Golden State Warriors have allowed it to carry them to record-setting marks in the NBA. The North Queensland Cowboys clung to it all the way to extra time in last year's NRL Grand Final. The Highlanders last year embraced it. The Crusaders of 2008 had it in spades. And so did the Chiefs of 2012 and 2013.
And they just may have it again, too. For they knew they had done it tough against the Hurricanes on Saturday night when they escaped with a one-point win but, even so, they sat around their team room after the game, and Aaron Cruden and Atu Moli led the team songs, and all the boys clapped and sang along, and laughed and cheered. And it was fun.
Debate on this article is now closed.