Ask Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph about his side's "battlers" tag and see what happens. Actually, let me save you the trouble. What happens is you get the kind of look that would singe the hairs on a buffalo's hide, freeze the dance floor of Hell's favourite nightclub, and send Darth Vader scuttling for the first shuttle off the Death Star.

It's probably best you don't bring up the term at all, because Joseph - as imposing as a glacier wall, and less prone to melting - doesn't want to hear it; he's sick of hearing it.

He'd much rather his team was known as something else. The time for self-deprecation, disguised as humility, is long gone.

Problem is this: it has long been the Highlanders' hallmark. It's the Highlanders themselves who heretofore have been happy to propagate the "battler" moniker. In the past you would ask one of them how they're getting on, and they would invariably offer up a "chipping away" or "getting through it, son". Pay one a compliment and the retort would have been "not too bad for a battler".


You can't get away from it down there. Perhaps it's just the southern way. The Highlanders have always done a great line in "humility", especially when it comes to finals appearances. But with last year's return to the post season - albeit a brief one - has come a fresh attitude within the team, a slow-dawning realisation: if we want to be taken seriously, we best take ourselves seriously.

In 2013, by his own admission, Joseph tried to fast-track success. But short cuts to glory very rarely lead from Dunedin to Valhalla. The Highlanders were left high and dry in a season that promised so much but delivered little. It may well have been the greatest and most grounding lesson of Joseph's coaching career.

"Last year we got back to basics," he says. "We picked a solid group of players who were performing consistently well."

You wonder if that is about as ringing as a Dunedin endorsement gets: "A solid group of players". Most pundits made a more scathing assessment: a team full of cast-offs, discards, a mongrel mob mustered from the nation's provincial paddocks.

"I challenge those people to look at the stats, and the results," Joseph says. "And to ask themselves how are they measuring mongrel versus athletic ability."

Or maybe it's the combination of both that makes the Highlanders what they are. It takes mongrel to rush out of the line to put a stop on Israel Folau, like Malakai Fekitoa did on Saturday night. It takes athletic ability to strip the ball off him and set up Waisake Naholo for a go-ahead try.

15 Mar, 2015 12:51pm
4 minutes to read

It takes mongrel to carry the ball into the shoulder of Michael Hooper, and keep going, like Elliot Dixon did on Saturday night. It takes athletic ability to then run straight into another from Jacques Potgieter, and still have the wherewithal to set the ruck that would ultimately lead to Ben Smith's score.

It takes mongrel to suit up 10 minutes before the game, like Gareth Evans did on Saturday night, having already played 80 minutes for the development team that afternoon. It takes athletic ability to then play 50 more minutes against the defending Super Rugby champions.

It takes mongrel to harass, harangue and pick pocket a team all game long, like the Highlanders did on Saturday night. It takes athletic ability to turn that defensive pressure into points.

"Battlers" don't get wins like that. Good teams do.

And that's what this Highlanders team is trying to be: A good team, and a living, breathing reminder that, like all good teams, the total is greater than the sum of its parts.

"Size-wise, depth-wise, we're a little bit behind," Joseph says. "But there's a real maturity here. There's no jest, or comical remarks about 'battlers' around here."

Maybe there are not. But you can tell there is complete buy-in to a common cause, and a sense of selflessness to match. If self-deprecation is humility in disguise, then this side has removed the cloak, and revealed the shining armour of spirit.

C.S. Lewis would approve. For it was he who once said, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it's thinking of yourself less."