If the Highlanders' "defending champion" tag seems a little unlikely as they prepare for the 2016 Super Rugby season, so does their pre-season fixture list; a match against Dan Carter's Racing Metro in Hong Kong one week, a clash in a farmer's paddock in Waimumu near Gore against the Crusaders the next.

A more orthodox match in Queenstown against the Waratahs awaits, and it remains to be seen how the hectic early travel schedule will affect Jamie Joseph's men for their first match proper - against the Blues at Eden Park on Friday week - but the Highlanders appear to thrive on following their own path.

They embrace difference and their people expressing themselves, as anyone who watched the clip of a Joe Wheeler-led tribute to the injured Richard Buckman at the Hong Kong after-match will attest. For those who haven't, picture the tall and avuncular Wheeler on stage singing "Barracuda", Buckman's nickname, to the tune of "Hallelujah".

Their on-field performances last year were just as entertaining. Their come-from-behind final victory against the Hurricanes in Wellington was one of the best in the competition's history, the high point of coach Joseph's salvage job after his difficult early years back in the deep south and built around the two Smiths, Aaron and Ben, plus Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and a tight-knit squad prepared to work extremely hard for each other.


At the New Zealand launch of the new Super Rugby season in Auckland today, Wheeler said that spirit was the result of hard work and also the relative isolation of the Highlanders' home in Dunedin.

"It's a special team in the respect that we are nomads, really," lock Wheeler said. "We come from all over the country from Northland to Invercargill and Japan. We all go down there for one reason and that is to play Super Rugby and hopefully become an All Black.

"When you have a team that doesn't know each other ... you've only got one choice and that is to buy into that team culture and buy into the whole mantra of numbers 1-39, the brotherhood, we've got down there, and get into it, because it can be a lonely place if you don't.

"The footy team, the Highlanders, the club, it becomes your family in many respects.

It's pretty special and everyone's encouraged to show their personality in the team and I think you see that in a lot of the stuff that we do. We have a lot of fun."

The Highlanders clearly had a lot of fun in the metropolis of Hong Kong before travelling to farmer Fred Booth's paddock for a match held in conjunction with the Southern Field Days, and Wheeler said both were special in their own way.

16 Feb, 2016 5:10am
2 minutes to read

"Obviously travelling Hong Kong had its own challenges," he said. "A lot of us had never been there before but we had a really good week over there. It was unique for us in terms of the fact that we are from little old Dunedin and used to training on Logan Park - to being in the middle of skyscrapers and going to gala dinners and all that sort of stuff. Most of us are from small towns so to go to an event like that was really special.

"Then we came back to Waimumu and to be honest the guys were just as excited about that... it took us right back to when we played club footy as kids - getting changed on the side of the field and then running out on a farmers' paddock in front of a packed embankment. We will cherish it for a long time."