Wellington, New Zealand – The Dunedin-based Highlanders will attempt to turn around a season of spectacular under-achievement when they play the Queensland Reds on Friday at the start of Super Rugby’s seventh round.
With a third of the 20-round season completed, the southern hemisphere tournament has no unbeaten teams – the ACT Brumbies lost that distinction last weekend when they fell to South Africa’s Stormers – and the Highlanders are its only winless side.
By losing their first four matches the Highlanders have failed to live up expectations that, with the recruitment of several high-profile players, they were about to enjoy one of their most productive seasons.
Instead, they have come to epitomize the tournament’s strugglers, those teams at the bottom of the competition whose playoff hopes have already begun to ebb away.
In the same category as the Highlanders are the New South Wales Waratahs, expected with a change of head coach to feature more prominently in this season’s championship but now, with two wins and three losses, camped in 11th place.
In the same region on the standings as the Waratahs and Highlanders are the Melbourne Rebels (12th), Perth-based Western Force (13th) and tournament newcomers, the Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings. Of these teams, only the Kings may be avoiding the sharp scrutiny that comes with poor performance, having carefully billed themselves as underdogs before their inaugural season began.
The Highlanders and Waratahs, who beat the Auckland Blues last weekend and face the Force on Sunday, can’t as easily avoid the close examination and the pressure that comes with underperformance.
Through the middle of the table, the Blues (6th), now 2-2 after winning their first two, then losing their next two matches, are also under pressure to revive their season when they play New Zealand conference leaders the Chiefs on Saturday.
The seventh-place Bulls (3-2), the eighth-place Stormers (2-2), the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs (3-2) and the Wellington-based Hurricanes (2-2) are all on the cusp between positive and negative starts to the season and no less under pressure to win weekend games.
The top of the table became more crowded when the Brumbies slipped back to the pack with their loss at Cape Town last weekend. Conference leaders the Brumbies, Chiefs and Durban-based Sharks now all have matching 4-1 records and only seven points separate the top-six teams.
The Reds, in fourth place, and the Christchurch-based Crusaders, in fifth, are both 4-2 for the season and in a position to keep pressure on the leading teams in their conferences.
Pressure intensifies with each step down the championship table and rests most heavily with the Highlanders, whose season will be all but lost if they can’t beat the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday. The reason for their lack of success this season is hard to pinpoint as they entered the season with an impressively bolstered playing roster.
They recruited All Blacks Ma’a Nonu at center and Andrew Hore at hooker and lured back to New Zealand from Japan the 37-year-old former All Blacks lock Brad Thorn who has shared their captaincy duties this season.
The Highlanders have Nonu and fellow All Blacks Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Hosea Gear among a talented backline and Hore and Thorn to lead a seasoned forward pack. But they have struggled to find consistency and, though their losses have mostly been by small margins, they have lacked an edge.
Coach Jamie Joseph remains hopeful that the strong squad he has assembled will still serve the Highlanders well as the season continues. “What I’ve found in the last two years is that at the time of the season it really counts, which is towards the end of the season, you need depth and experience,” he said. “We’ve increased that experience.
“But you can’t forget about the injuries we’ve had. We selected 16 forwards for the season and out of that 16, each week, we’ve had eight or nine to choose from.”
At the top end of the table, the Brumbies are determined to ensure their first loss of the season doesn’t turn into a longer retreat from winning form. Center Pat McCabe said the loss in Cape Town was sobering and delivered a lesson to the Brumbies about what it takes to be consistently successful in Super Rugby.
“I think that game against the Stormers showed us what it takes to be at the top of the competition,” McCabe said. “They’ve been one of the best sides for a long time and they showed us we’ve still got a bit of work to do before we become the side we know we can be.”
Winger Jesse Mogg, who missed the Stormers game with a shoulder injury but is slated to return against the Bulls, said it was important for the Brumbies to quickly bounce back to winning form.
The Crusaders will test their recent return to form when they take on the Stormers at Cape Town. After losing their first two matches, the seven-time champions have won two in a row over the Bulls and Kings but they now need to sustain that form to challenge the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference.
All Blacks backrower Keiran Read will miss the match and George Whitelock, who scored three tries against the Kings, will captain the team in his place. Star flyhalf Dan Carter has remained in New Zealand for the birth of his first child and will be replaced by Tyler Bleyendaal while All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg returns from injury. – Sapa-AP