In an alternate rugby world, maybe one in which the Hurricanes weren't the only Kiwi team without a Super Rugby title, Jamie Joseph would have been out of a job.

He would have received his marching orders shortly after piloting the Highlanders to 14th place in the 2013 season, having won only three of 16 games.

The southern side would have been forced to start over, to recruit a new coach with a new plan and head down a new path that never would have culminated in Saturday's stunning win over the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby final.

Instead, though, Joseph was retained, and the two years later the Highlanders reaped the rewards.


Climbing so quickly from second-bottom to the top of the pile is an impressive feat on paper. It would seem to speak of a rag-tag bunch rallying around their under-fire coach and somehow rousing themselves into championship form.

But Joseph insisted that 2013 team had very little relation to what went on at the Cake Tin on Saturday night. In fact, only Ben Smith and Aaron Smith started both the Highlanders' last game of the 2013 season and the 2015 final.

"There's been a lot of things, really, but in short it's a different team," Joseph said of the catalyst for the turnaround. "The personnel's changed, we have new managers, new coaches, new physios and new doctors.

"In hindsight, I made some calls [in 2013] that I thought were going to be better for the Highlanders and clearly they weren't. But we managed to turn it around."

The other thing about that 2013 season was its peculiarity. After all, the groundwork for this year's side was laid with Joseph's appointment in 2011, with the former All Black rapidly improving a side without a playoff appearance in a decade.

And, even before Joseph arrived, the franchise had already been overhauled, with the financial situation improved and recruitment enhanced. In turn, slow but steady progress towards relevance continued in Joseph's first couple of campaigns.

The annus horribilis of two years ago appears, in hindsight, nothing more than an aberration. The Highlanders already possessed players like Lima Sopoaga, Elliot Dixon and Joe Wheeler -- it was just a matter of introducing the young talent into the side and surrounding them with a quality coaching staff led by Joseph and Tony Brown.

Brown, of course, was part of the Highlanders side who had their party pooped in 1999, a team that reached the semifinals four times in five seasons without breaking the duck. And now, in the 20th year of Super Rugby, Joseph knew how the drought-snapping win would be received.

"It's been a long time since there's been some real success in the deep south," he said. "I think it'll mean a hell of a lot to the region."

One man well aware of the significance was Ben Smith, who was born in Dunedin and watched on as a teenager as the Highlanders continually fell near the final hurdle. And having cleared it at last, after suffering defeat after defeat two seasons ago, Smith struggled to express the emotions of being part of such an historic side.

"I don't know how to describe it, really," he said. "We created something special this year and I just really enjoyed being a part of it."