'Massive signs of progress': How the Highlanders have transformed themselves to defy lowly expectations
While the Crusaders emerged from Saturday’s South Island derby with a 40-20 victory in Dunedin, Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger is not dismayed by what his side produced at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Written off by many heading into the revised Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign based on their dismal pre-COVID results and supposedly weaker squad, the southerners have earned plenty of plaudits for their efforts in the opening month of the competition.
A first-up win over the Chiefs was followed by a tight 27-24 defeat to the unbeaten Blues, where a last-minute call to opt for an ultimately unsuccessful lineout drive rather than take a penalty shot at goal cost the Highlanders the chance to go two from two to open their campaign.
Their defeat at the hands of local rivals the Crusaders – with a scoreline that flattered the visitors – leaves the club with a 1-2 record heading into the halfway stage of the domestic league.
Mauger, however, believes his side have turned a corner compared to where they were prior to the initial Super Rugby competition’s suspension.
Languishing at the bottom half of the table with just one win from five outings, an increased commitment to the cause has lifted the Highlanders’ game drastically.
“We were in it for 76 minutes, six points down, and a couple of key moments through that second half made it different,” Mauger said post-match.
“[There are] massive signs of progress. I think you look at the fight in this team.
“When you can live and die by your commitment to each other and what you stand for, you can’t really ask for much more.
“For us, it’s just being able to live with intensity for the whole game. We fell a bit short last week, and we fell a bit short tonight when it really mattered.
“It’s just time. We’ll keep working on those things.”
Part of the Highlanders’ turnaround has been the progression of the franchise’s forward pack, who have collectively stepped up to free up more options for the backline out wide.
Leading the charge is nine-test All Blacks loose forward Shannon Frizell, whose stunning all-round performances over the past fortnight have made for an intriguing selection dilemma for national boss Ian Foster.
Young loose forwards Hoskins Sotutu, Cullen Grace and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u have all caught the eye in Super Rugby Aotearoa, with many calling for their selections in Foster’s next All Blacks squad, whenever that takes place.
Frizell’s physically confronting output, though, will no doubt keep him well in the selection frame, as it has proved vital to the Highlanders’ campaign.
“He’s been awesome in his first three game, he’s a bit of a menace,” Mauger said.
“We had plans to get the ball back from kick-offs, and he was outstanding there.
“We wanted to really take our game to the Crusaders, and he was a big part of that early on, getting the ball back, carrying hard and close to the line, so he’s in pretty good form.”
Those defections add to a mounting injury list at the Highlanders, who are already without Sione Misiloi (foot), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (shoulder), James Lentjes (ankle), Tevita Nabura (back), Conor Garden-Bachop (back) and Sam Gilbert (knee) for the season.
Hooker Nathan Vella is also working his way back from a concussion, but key players Nehe Milner-Skudder and Josh Ioane aren’t too far away from returning from their respective shoulder and quad injuries.
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