Given the way they had performed in the opening rounds of the original iteration of Super Rugby back in February and March, there was little evidence to suggest they could stand as genuine threats in the daunting all-Kiwi competition.
Filled with a squad that was void of much experience and had lost a multitude of key figures from last year’s campaign, their last result prior to Super Rugby Aotearoa kicking off was a 38-13 drubbing at the hands of the Bulls in Pretoria.
That left the Dunedin franchise win just one win from six fixtures as COVID-19 hit, leading some pundits to suggest that they would be lucky to even win a game in the abbreviated New Zealand league.
How wrong those predictions were.
Returning to camp from lockdown in peak physical condition led to an improved effort by the team’s forward pack, who worked in tandem with each other to provide their backline with much cleaner, front-foot ball than they did six months ago.
That handed the likes of Aaron Smith, Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane a much better platform to attack from, and the reward of that was an often-scintillating brand of rugby – especially in the final fortnight of action.
Saturday’s 38-21 victory over the much-fancied Hurricanes was arguably the best display of rugby the Highlanders had shown all year, with perhaps last week’s effort in a 32-22 defeat to the Crusaders the only other display that could challenge for that mantle.
The win over the Hurricanes in front of an empty Forsyth Barr Stadium was coupled with two last-gasp victories over the Chiefs well before New Zealand re-entered Alert Levels 2 and 3, while there were a raft of close losses.
Maybe if Sio Tomkinson hadn’t been sin binned as the clock ticked into the final quarter of last week’s Crusaders defeat, the Highlanders could have withstood the infamous final 20-minute surge from the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions.
Similarly, had the Highlanders opted to take a shot at goal to send the game into extra-time rather than go for the jugular with a failed lineout from a last-minute penalty against the Blues in Auckland, we might be re-calling a win instead of a tight 27-24 loss.
However, the fact the Highlanders even won three matches and came within touching distance of further successes, all while playing vastly-improved footy, is indicative of the transformation they underwent between Super Rugby’s three-month lockdown.
“We have proved a lot of people wrong,” Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger said after his side’s win over the Hurricanes on Saturday.
“But we always knew it was in this group, it was just a matter of extracting that out of them and everyone’s played a massive part in that.
“Right from the top down, the support we’ve got around our boys and our coaching group has been outstanding, our support staff have been amazing, our leaders have just led with real courage and led through their actions.
“When you get that part of the equation right, people want to follow, and I think our younger guys have seen the example, and they’ve followed really well and, in turn, they’ve been rewarded with better form and probably a bit more recognition of where they’re at.”
Mauger noted the satisfaction he felt of overseeing the squad’s development over the past year as head coach, which exemplified how far his group of players had come from their season-opening 42-20 thrashing by the Sharks.
The former All Blacks midfielder, whose three-year contract is now up for renewal, added that he believed the lockdown period instilled his playing group with a greater appreciation for both their roles as professional rugby players and life in general.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 15, 2020
“The boys turned up, we were fitter, we were running PBs and that created energy on the first day. It was just a different buzz,” Mauger said.
“I think a big part of that is just what the isolation period and what COVID taught us, to be grateful and make the most of every day, and I think our boys genuinely acknowledge that and understand how lucky they are to be in this environment and they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“That’s life. We live for every day. I think our boys realised that through COVID, they went and attacked it and it’s been pretty cool to watch that grow and develop and for that to all come together.”
That gelling of the squad and enhanced output on the field has seen an outpour of support from Highlanders fans throughout the region, with Forsyth Barr Stadium averaging attendances of just under 20,000 during Super Rugby Aotearoa.
“I think through our performances this year, it feels like our fans have actually fallen back in love with the team, and that’s what we want,” Mauger said.
“We talked about that, when we’d come back from our isolation period, that we want to make sure our fans are connected to our game, they enjoy the way we play and they walk away with a smile on their face and we’re inspiring the next generation of Highlanders, and I think this team has done that.”
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