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'Poison': How the 2013 Highlanders season was derailed by All Blacks stars

By Sam Smith
Photo: Rob Jefferies / photosport.co.nz

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Current and former Highlanders stars have opened up on how the franchise went wrong in their dismal 2013 Super Rugby campaign.

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Big things were expected of the Highlanders nine years ago, when the Dunedin-based outfit began to improve under the tutelage of third-year coach Jamie Joseph.

Season-by-season improvements had led to a test debut for current All Blacks centurion and Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith, who, at the time, joined a strong contingent of internationals at the club.

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Hometown hero Ben Smith was among those test-capped players in the squad, having strengthened his standing as an All Black in 2012.

The same could have been said for Highlanders backs Tamati Ellison and Hosea Gear, while first-five Colin Slade and hooker Andrew Hore were both headline figures after shifting south from the Crusaders and Hurricanes, respectively.

Those six All Blacks, as well as one-test prop Jamie Mackintosh and three-test lock Jarrad Hoeata, were then joined by three major signings ahead of the 2013 season.

All Blacks stars Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu both switched from the Blues to the Highlanders, while World Cup-winning lock Brad Thorn signed on with the side following a couple of seasons abroad.

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Together, the trio’s arrival at the franchise had the All Black-laden Highlanders – who also had future All Blacks Lima Sopoaga, Elliot Dixon and Liam Coltman in their ranks – listed as strong title contenders.

So star-studded were the Highlanders that many predicted them to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, but what transpired was a horror season that saw Joseph’s side finish second-last with just three wins from 16 matches.

“We lost eight in a row, and it’s something that scarred me forever, and it still hurts,” Aaron Smith told Sky Sport in the 1-39 Highlanders documentary as he recalled questioning the motives of his high-profile teammates.

“We were talking about championships before we even got to a playoff, but that doesn’t buy you a championship.

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“We weren’t built by work through trust and selflessness, and doing your job creates a try for others, or wanting to tackle for your mate.

“Were they just counting their money? Were they just here to get a bonus cheque and get ready for the All Blacks? It’s hard to say, but that’s what I saw.”

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Smith’s comments were supported by ex-Highlanders loose forward Nasi Manu, who watched on from afar in 2013 when injury kept him sidelined from the outset of that season.

Being away from the squad allowed Manu, a Highlanders icon after he co-captained the team to its maiden Super Rugby title in 2015, to make some astute observations about where the side was going wrong.

“2013 was a hard year for me. When I got injured the first game, I was sort of not part of the team, so I was sort of looking from the outside,” Manu said.

“As all the bad experiences and the bad chat starts to go around the team, I can sense that because I’m not in the team.”

Those bad experiences were exemplified by disjointed relationship between the playing and coaching groups, which developed after some “double standards had started to creep in”, according to Manu.

“Some of the younger players would get pulled up for maybe a missed pass or a missed tackle, and the guys like our All Blacks weren’t.”

As a result, former Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler told Sky Sport that “the trust between the coaching staff and the players just wasn’t there”, which Smith said led to a toxic culture within the squad.

That feeling of unfairness and discontent within the camp spilled over into the team’s end-of-year function, where Smith said fights broke out among teammates.

“I think it was summed up, 2013 end-of-year do was disconnected, not an awesome party, not a loving party,” Smith told Sky Sport.

“There were fights. You shouldn’t fight your teammates. That’s one sign that I knew there was poison. It was sad, and it’s sad talking about it like that, but that’s how it felt.”

Having watched on from the sidelines as the Highlanders imploded, Manu took action by arranging a meeting with Joseph to discuss how the playing squad felt about the season as a whole heading into 2014.

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“I went in and I told him pretty much everything. ‘I want to tell you what I’m hearing from all the boys and what’s going on’. I knew some fixes we could do and knew what we couldn’t do again,” Manu said.

“The thing about these conversations and these arguments was driven by what was best for the team.”

Not only did Joseph acknowledge that message from Manu, he went on to appoint him as co-captain alongside Ben Smith for the 2014 campaign, the first year in which he implemented the newly-created 1-39 philosophy.

After hearing of how some of his players felt less valued than others, Joseph developed the 1-39 philosophy with the aim of ensuring all of the players in the Highlanders squad felt equal and were on a level playing field.

“The 1-39 was brought in 2014,” Aaron Smith told Sky Sport. “Obviously that’s the amount of squad members we have. Didn’t matter where you stand in the 1-39, you had a voice.”

As Joseph put it: “It didn’t really matter where you were one player in the All Blacks that had played 50, 60 caps, a player like Ben Smith, or you were No 39, who was a player like Trent Renata.”

That philosophy laid the foundation of the success enjoyed by the Highlanders in the ensuing seasons, as they broke their long-standing playoff duck in 2014 before going on to claim their only title to date in 2015.

Those campaigns were followed by four consecutive playoff appearances between 2016 and 2019, plus two further post-season outings in 2021 and 2022, and a famous win over the British & Irish Lions in 2017.

Wheeler said that success stemmed from the ashes of the 2013 season, which he described as “the best thing to happen to the organisation” due to the subsequent implementation of the 1-39 philosophy.

“That, for us, was our biggest thing, was how can we make sure we keep all 1-39, their value, just the same,” Manu told Sky Sport.

“I think, generally, the 1-39, we genuinely all cared about the team.”

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