After pummelling the Waratahs 49-12 at Rugby Park in Invercargill on Friday night, the Dunedin-based franchise had to rely on results to fall in their favour in order to qualify for Super Rugby’s knockout stages.
With six wins, three draws, seven losses and 36 points to their name, a win without a bonus point for the Chiefs over the Rebels at AAMI Park in Melbourne immediately after the Waratahs clash would have secured the Highlanders a place in the post-season, but a 59-8 thrashing put their play-off ambitions in doubt.
Stranded in eighth place with one more fixture left in the round, the only way the Highlanders could continue their season was if the Bulls denied the Lions a single competition point during their local derby at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
An inspired display by Pote Human’s side in the opening and closing quarters of the match solidified the Highlanders’ place in the last eight, with talismanic playmaker Handre Pollard guiding the hosts to a 48-27 victory.
The result means that the Lions, runners-up of Super Rugby for the past three seasons, have missed the play-offs altogether, while the Highlanders have sneakily booked a date with the all-conquering Crusaders at the newly-renamed Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch in the first of four quarter-finals this weekend.
It’s not as if Banks stayed up into the early hours of Sunday morning to watch the South African derby from New Zealand, though.
“I’m a pretty good sleeper,” Banks said on Monday.
“I had the phone on silent, I think I found out at about eight o’clock when all the hoo-ha was coming through on the phones, but it was pretty exciting to wake up to that.
“Whatever happened in Africa was out of our control, but obviously the Bulls did us a favour, and we’re pretty grateful to be back at training on a Monday.”
The Bulls’ favour also extends Banks’ farewell party from the club, as he is one of at least a whopping 13 players leaving the franchise at the end of the campaign.
Joining the Highlanders from the Hurricanes in 2015, Banks has gone on to make 40 appearances across two stints with the club, and played key roles in two of the biggest wins in the team’s history.
He landed a drop goal in the closing stages of the 2015 Super Rugby final against the Hurricanes, which helped the Highlanders to a 21-14 win over his former side at Westpac Stadium, and he slotted the match-winning penalty inside the final 10 minutes during the club’s famous 23-22 upset over the British and Irish Lions at Forsyth Barr Stadium two years later.
2017 was a particularly standout year for Banks, from an individual perspective.
Star pivot Lima Sopoaga was sidelined with a leg injury for the majority of the season, so it was Banks who was tasked with guiding the Highlanders around the park for nine matches straight.
He subsequently played a key role in the side’s record nine-match winning streak, impressing with his composed demeanour with ball in hand, solid distribution skills, and incredible goal-kicking accuracy.
Although they were dumped in the quarter-finals through a 17-0 defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch – the same fixture at the same stage of the competition that the Highlanders face this weekend – Banks’ exploits didn’t go unnoticed.
That year, he was named Highlanders Fans’ Player of the Year, which confirmed his status as a cult hero figure, not just within the Highlanders region, but all across New Zealand.
There are many other reasons why he’s become such a prominent figure within the New Zealand rugby landscape throughout his unorthodox professional career.
Mingling with underworld personnel during his time in Russia at the beginning of his career, winning the Heartland Championship with home province Buller, infamously swigging a can of beer before nailing a sideline conversion during his title-winning tenure with Tasman and being the target of many a joke from teammates and friends on social media have all contributed to Banks’ unconventional story.
However, it has been with the Highlanders where he has really established his credentials, so he will be hoping to extend his loan spell from Japanese Top League club NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes for as long as possible as the play-offs begin on Friday.
“I just love being apart of the team,” he said.
“Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve been part of the play-offs, and it’s just an exciting time.
“The boys just really love it, and there will obviously be a few boys heading away at the end of the year, so it’s just exciting to be around guys like that and just looking forward to enjoying the time, whether it’s a week to whatever it turns out to be, it’s just an exciting time, so pretty stoked to be apart of it.”
Banks will be joined in Japan next year by current Highlanders teammates Liam Squire (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes), Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi DynaBoars), Elliot Dixon (Ricoh Black Rams), Tevita Li (Suntory Sungoliath), Tom Franklin and Richard Buckman (both Kobe Steelers).
Others, such as Ben Smith, Luke Whitelock (both Pau), Waisake Naholo (London Irish) and Matt Faddes (Ulster), are headed for Europe, while Kiwi rivals, the Hurricanes, yesterday announced their signing of young All Blacks prop Tyrel Lomax.
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With such a big exodus from Dunedin, many are fearing for what’s in store for the Highlanders in 2020, but Banks believes he and his teammates are leaving the club in good stead for the near future, especially with the anticipated arrival of a former Tasman teammate and Crusaders first-five on the horizon.
“They’ve got a couple of new guys coming down, they’ve got Mitchy Hunt, I think, off the top of my head,” he said.
“I think there will be a lot of new signings coming down here, and it’s just going to be the way New Zealand Rugby is, I guess, a lot of young guys stepping up now, and filling the void of some of the older guys moving on.
“It’s just awesome to see New Zealand footy in a good place.”
The capture of the 28-year-old is a significant one for the franchise, who will be relying on his experience and expertise in a year where they will be severely lacking such attributes throughout their squad.
“We’re losing some key guys, some of our All Blacks, but it’ll be nice, it’ll be refreshing,” he said.
“We’ll have some new faces around, and sometimes you can bring in some new guys and bring in some new energy, and it’ll be an exciting year, for sure.”
Lentjes becomes just the seventh player to publicly announce his re-commitment to the Highlanders for next year, joining All Blacks Aaron Smith and Liam Coltman, as well as Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Bryn Gatland, Teihorangi Walden and Josh McKay.
Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said earlier this month that signings were expected to be announced in the coming weeks, with All Blacks Sevens duo Jona Nareki and Scott Gregory understood to be among the new arrivals.
Watch – Marty Banks speaks to media ahead of the Highlanders’ clash with the Crusaders:
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