Six talking points after the Highlanders pulled off a magnificent, huge, upset in Christchurch.
IT REALLY IS IN THE TOP TWO INCHES
The TAB, the most clinical of odds makers, had the Highlanders at $7.30 outsiders when they travelled north to play the Crusaders.
Those odds seemed entirely reasonable. What's sometimes easy to forget though is that rugby players are human beings who, like the rest of us, read, and listen to what's being said.
Remember the 2011 World Cup final, where the All Blacks were such hot favourites Ireland's biggest bookmakers paid out six days before the game was played? And how the All Blacks actually just scraped to a one-point win over France?
The Highlanders, it was clear from the start, just like that French team in '11, had a brilliant, nothing to lose, everything to gain, attitude. The Highlanders' 33-12 scoreline was an accurate reflection of how they kept that mindset for 80 minutes while the Crusaders, usually the epitome of grace under pressure, showed they were capable of mistakes and even capable of, at times, playing panicky rugby.
THE CHAOS THEORY CAN WORK IN RUGBY
It was a hell of a week in Dunedin for the Highlanders.
Six men dropped from the squad, apparently for behaving like party kid scarfies in the city have for years.
Who knows how much a fortress mentality, which almost certainly would have developed, when added to an existing underdog tag, fired their players up? Mitch Hunt was a prime example, with Josh Ioane sidelined, of someone on whom even greater pressure than usual was piled.
His response was superb, from goal kicking that looked guided by radar, to resourceful, gutsy, sometimes wonderfully cheeky general play.
TALKING ABOUT PRESSURE
The Crusaders have had a terrific scrum all season, which is hardly any wonder when you consider they have a tight five of internationals, who between them have played 273 test matches. It was a huge plus for the Highlanders that their scrum didn't buckle when it mattered most, and that in fact they won a couple of vital penalties on Crusader scrum feeds.
THE PROFESSOR KNOWS HIS STUFF, DOESN'T HE?
Wayne Smith, a Zen master of the game, said during the week of the Highlanders that, "They know how to keep the ball alive. Parts of the game aren't working for them, but they're beautiful to watch at times with their support play."
As the man who started the Crusaders on their amazing winning ways back in 1998, his heart may have sunk a tiny bit watching the Good Friday demolition, but the man they call The Professor would have seen plenty to appeal to the rugby purist he is.
DOES THIS MEAN THE CRUSADERS ARE SUDDENLY NOT THE FAVOURITES?
Not in a million years. The sting of such a comprehensive, smacked legs, red-faced defeat, and having to look back now at so many things going wrong in one game, will be not so much, in the old coaching phrase, a rock under the towel on the beach for the Crusaders, but a whole damned quarry.
Look out for a side preparing with gritted teeth for a huge game against the Hurricanes next weekend in Wellington.
A GENTLE WORD TO THE WISE
The furore in Dunedin over player behaviour burned hotter and for longer than it needed to because standing down six players, and not explaining exactly why, gave fuel to media flames.
No doubt there had been some foolish choices, but no more than that. It happens. In 2011 before the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina the All Blacks didn't try to hide the fact Cory Jane and Israel Dagg had been out on the town in the week before the game. Photos emerged of both drinking, and Jane smoking, in Mac's Brewbar in Takapuna.
Both then played outstandingly well in a 33-10 All Black victory. When Jane fronted the media after the match he freely admitted "When you do something stupid it can affect the team. It has been an awkward day. But I just knew I had to play well."
If it's silly, not criminal, and you're open about things, the vast majority of us are happy to forgive, forget, and move on.