It was a mistake to underestimate the Highlanders last year and it would be just as unwise to do so again this year.

The character, resilience and sheer determination of the Highlanders are immense. So, too, is the power of their cohesion and if there is a favourite to win the New Zealand Conference, it is probably them.

Call it self-belief or self-confidence, it doesn't really matter, the Highlanders have this conviction in who they are and what they are doing.

They have this collective understanding of their individual roles and how, if they are done to the prescribed brief, that gives them the chance to play beyond the sum of their collective parts.


That's what they built their title on last year and it's what they are suddenly doing again.

For a two-week period earlier this month, they lost their confidence. They couldn't bring everyone together and make them believe in what they were doing.

Individuals were operating outside their respective briefs and the execution collapsed.

Against the Reds and Sharks, the Highlanders had the look of lost souls, they appeared to have stopped believing they had any chance of successfully defending their title.

It was only a blip, though. A little wobble. In the last two weeks, the Highlanders have come roaring back to life with comprehensive defeats of the Chiefs and Crusaders.

The belief they were missing has been found and there are several reasons to see them as the most likely New Zealand Conference winner, not the least of which is their proven ability to confound expectation.

The majority of the Highlanders squad were with the franchise last year and know how to win pressure games. They know how to back up each week at this stage of the season.

The Highlanders, as they showed last year and have done so again in the last few weeks, have this ability to play better, the bigger the occasion.

The more pressure they come under and the more they sense they are not widely fancied to win, the better they play.

Much of that is due to the astute analysis and flexibility of their coaching team.

Against the Chiefs, Aaron and Ben Smith and Lima Sopoaga kicked 25 times between them. They were happy to give the ball to the Chiefs' back three and then close down their space. It worked superbly and the Chiefs couldn't break out, couldn't ignite any counter attack and became frustrated.

The approach was different against the Crusaders. The Highlanders were about continuity. They kept the ball in hand more, fixing the Crusaders inside defence to try to create space on the outside. Again, it worked superbly and illustrated the depth of their planning and ability of their coaching team to instil in the players what exactly it is they are looking for each week.

The common factor in their recent victories is the aggression and excellence of their defence. The Highlanders, when they are at their best, swarm teams. They push off the line quickly and leave the ball-carrier with little time. They also scramble superbly, which allows them to hang in when they are under pressure and deny teams points they feel they have done enough to earn.

The Crusaders found that out the hard way. They dominated the first 20 minutes, went over the line twice but on both occasions, the Highlanders had managed to do just enough to win the TMO decision.

For all that pressure and dominance, the Crusaders scored just nine points and then saw the Highlanders make one foray into their territory, which was enough for Waisake Naholo to be worked over in the corner.

As the stakes get higher and the tension rises, the Highlanders have a style that, if nothing else, makes them hard to beat. They defend with everything, suck up the pressure and then hit back on the counter-attack with deadly strikes that net points.

Everything is underpinned by the tenacity of their pack whose ability to get the most out of players others don't particularly rate is incredible.

The Highlanders are really all about the grind and the contest at the coalface. That's where they impress. They faced a star-studded, in-form Crusaders pack in Dunedin and got the better of them.

The likes of Alex Ainley, Dan Pryor and Ash Dixon struck a massive blow for journeymen everywhere. Luke Whitelock played the game of his life and Elliot Dixon surely clinched his place in the 32-man All Blacks squad when it is named later this month.

The forwards understand their job is to win the ball, get over the gainline and give the likes of Ben and Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Naholo and Sopoaga the possession they need to conjure clinical plays.

Champions in 2015, the Highlanders are tracking well to be champions in 2016.