A review of the Highlanders’ Season

Best player: Aaron Smith

Went from being underrated backup to best halfback in the country in the space of about six weeks. A rapid pass, good decision making, and an improving running game. Critic’s favourite Highlander is now everyone’s favourite Highlander.

Best Win: Highlanders 27-24 Crusaders

The win against the Cheetahs in South Africa was a very strange game, which included uncharacteristically enterprising back play and a huge second half comeback. Ben Smith was ridiculously good. But, for sheer drama, I’m going to go for the Week Two win against the Crusaders. The farce with stadium clock made it the game that never ended. Most importantly, the Highlanders clung on and won over the supporters in the new stadium. And for a while the Highlanders were the hottest ticket in town.

Worst Loss: Crusaders 51-18 Highlanders

At that point the Highlanders still had a big chance to make the playoffs, but then on a freezing Christchurch night they ran into an unstoppable force. Pretty much spelled the end of the season for the Highlanders, who didn’t win another game.

What went right?

The defence was really good for most of the season. The Highlanders of 2012 showed the ability to grind out games against stronger opposition and somehow come away with the win. The Highlanders were one of the few teams who still throw heaps of numbers into the counter ruck, and it worked. They got a lot of turnovers, and hardly any teams were able to get quick ball against them.

What went wrong?

Injuries. You’re not going to get very far on your fourth-string First Five. John Hardie had two outstanding games then was gone for the season. The spin-it-wide-but-keep-possession game plan combined with the physical defensive style probably caused most of the injury problems. It also left the Highlanders wide open to the counterattack, which some teams took brutal advantage of. It was a strategy that succeeded in keeping them competitive, but was never going to win the competition.

The Crowds?

When the Zoo was open for business it was a hit. There was some bleating about it being too loud and a bit naughty, but that’s just socially deficient old cranks whining to the ODT. Average crowd attendance was almost double that of last year, which proves what a shithole Carisbrook was. To keep the crowds coming back the Highlanders are going to need to become real contenders, or attendance will slowly slip back under the 10,000-a-game mark.

Next Season?

Jamie Joseph is back, so many of the imports he recruited will do likewise. The Highlanders have a strong enough squad now to make the playoffs. They just need a bit more luck with injuries and a First Five who can play for the whole season. Things are looking up – we could have a legitimate rugby team in Dunedin if we aren’t careful.
This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2012.
Posted 5:14pm Sunday 15th July 2012 by Gus Gawn.