Suddenly, on the back of one performance, the Highlanders have resurrected themselves from fading force to potential title winners.

When they lumbered to consecutive losses against the Reds and Sharks, it looked like the wheels were coming off. And the reason they were coming off was because there was no self-belief.

There was no conviction. They were uncertain, reticent to trust themselves and the game plan the way they did at this stage of the competition last year.

Without that inner belief, they didn't get off the defensive line the way they had. They didn't swarm either the Reds or Sharks; harry and hound them into submission. Without that confidence, they didn't take tactical control with the authority of old. They didn't dictate the pace of the game or determine in which areas they were going to play.


They didn't look like either defending or potential champions in those two games and there wasn't any compelling reason to see how that would change.

Self-belief is not easy to find once it has been lost and few teams rely upon it as much as the Highlanders. They have a good rather than a great squad. They need to wring out everything they have each time they play.

Their success is built on hard work, discipline, accuracy, clever tactical planning, simplicity and patience.

It's their collective belief that they can succeed by doing their own jobs and trusting one another that elevates them from being a good team into a champion team and who wasn't ready to say, ahead of playing the Chiefs last week, that the Highlanders had lost their essence?

And then as quickly as they lost themselves, they found themselves. No one fancied them to topple the high-flying Chiefs and maybe that was the catalyst: maybe the Highlanders needed that backdrop of public doubt and incentive to prove everyone wrong.

Or maybe it was the return of Waisake Naholo that triggered their self-belief and had them back playing as champions - forcing the Chiefs to play miles behind the gainline and aimlessly scurry around trying to find space that wasn't there.

Naholo is that sort of player - inspirational in the way he can finish from almost anywhere. But, really, how the Highlanders have ignited their campaign isn't so important.

All that matters now from their perspective is that they play with the same pace, intensity and tactical mastery on Friday against the Crusaders.

If they can squeeze the Crusaders in the same way they did the Chiefs and convert their pressure into points with the same efficiency, then they are a better-than-even chance of winning on their own ground.

Most people made the mistake of underestimating the Highlanders last year.

They kept winning and yet every time they did, the suspicion grew stronger that it couldn't last. But the bigger the challenge, the better the Highlanders responded and it would be silly to imagine they can't, with largely the same squad and coaching staff, do the same again this year.

They have had a mid-season wobble, but the ship has been steadied. Naholo is back and firing. Malakai Fekitoa is due to erupt.

Lima Sopoaga has rediscovered that commanding edge and the two Smiths - Aaron and Ben - continue to deliver a bit of almost everything.

Now they look more dark horse than rocking horse.

Highlanders' remaining fixtures