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RUGBYPASS+ Folk hero

Folk hero
1 year ago

There is an enduring rumour that after the Highlanders upset the odds to win the 2015 Super Rugby final against the Hurricanes, reserve loose forward Shane Christie, now an assistant coach with the team, proudly went straight out on the town in his full playing kit – literally boots and all in Wellington. 

A year later, Highlanders utility Marty Banks (who coolly kicked a dropped goal late in that final to secure the win) was playing for Tasman against Taranaki in New Plymouth when he scored the match-winning try with seconds on the clock. 

When retrieving the ball for his conversion attempt, a Taranaki supporter threw a can of beer in his direction. Without breaking his stride, Banks, a man whose rugby journey has taken him to Russia and various other far-flung destinations, polished off the dregs and threw it back towards the grandstand. He kicked the conversion, of course.

The Highlanders have always had a knack for developing characters who are unafraid to express their individuality. It has become as integral to their brand as their near-fearless running game, which, coupled with their roofed stadium, means they are rarely out of matches at home, especially during term time when the university students are in town.

Ben Smith and Marty Banks were both folk heroes at the Highlanders are are both now playing in Japan’s Top League. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Richard “Barracuda” Buckman, a scrappy wing who took his game to a new level in the deep south, was a one of a kind. So was Japan halfback Fumiaki Tanaka, one of the smallest players to ever put on a Super Rugby jersey, and England loose forward James Haskell, who went to Dunedin for the rugby and left with a lifetime of memories, including several entertaining hunting expeditions. 

Head coach Tony Brown, a born and bred local from Kaitangata, has long been a legend in the deep south for his competitiveness and loyalty. The 1999 Super Rugby final between the Highlanders and Crusaders was tagged “the Party at Tony Brown’s” – a rip-off from an insurance advertisement of the time. That didn’t end as well as he would have liked but he was on the books as an assistant coach in 2015 so he finally achieved his dream result.

Likewise, Ben Smith, he of Green Island, Otago, the Highlanders and All Blacks, is unlikely to have to buy himself a beer anywhere between the Waitaki River and the Clutha, and places further afield in fact, for what he achieved in all of those jerseys.

They like a folk hero, do the Highlanders, and while his opportunities have been limited after a late arrival from Japan, loose forward Kizuki Himeno is quickly becoming another. 

The 26-year-old was described as a “rookie” on New Zealand’s Super Rugby website after his stunning performance in his team’s victory over the Blues in Dunedin, a reference which raised eyebrows in Japan due to his 17 tests for the Brave Blossoms, including a starring role in the last World Cup.

He has played in only four games this season but his impact has been considerable, and it only took one match off the reserves bench against the Hurricanes to convince coach Brown that he deserved a start. That happened to be in Christchurch in the historic victory over the Crusaders.

The 26-year-old was described as a “rookie” on New Zealand’s Super Rugby website after his stunning performance in his team’s victory over the Blues in Dunedin, a reference which raised eyebrows in Japan due to his 17 tests for the Brave Blossoms, including a starring role in the last World Cup.

In Japan he is seen as the natural successor to inspirational captain Michael Leitch, and an integral member of the Toyota Verblitz club. 

In short, while Himeno has quickly become a fans’ favourite, he is also a man with a big future which may mean his season in the south is his only one for a while. He signed a one-year deal with the Highlanders and his club is likely to want him back next year for the start of Japan’s new “pro-league” competition.

Many a side, including pool favourites Ireland, struggled to contain the power and work rate of Kazuki Himeno at the RWC. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Those who have missed watching the Brave Blossoms – they haven’t played a test since their last World Cup match, a quarter-final defeat to eventual champions South Africa in October, 2019 – would have enjoyed watching Himeno recently for the utter commitment and joy with which he plays.

The delight he showed when scoring his first try for the Highlanders against the Blues, and before that when he ran on to the Orangetheory Stadium pitch to celebrate his team’s win over the Crusaders, was infectious.

His running game, defence, and overall work rate have lessened the load on fellow loose forwards Shannon Frizell, who recently re-signed with New Zealand Rugby until 2023, and Marino Mikaele Tu’u. His arrival was held up by COVID and the need for a special visa, but he was a canny signing by Tony Brown, the assistant Japan coach, and has appeared to have fitted perfectly into the unique Highlanders fold.

It’s pretty special and everyone’s encouraged to show their personality in the team and I think you see that in a lot of the stuff that we do. We have a lot of fun.

Joe Wheeler on the Highlanders’ culture

Five years ago, when Joe Wheeler was still playing for the Highlanders, the lock described the binding element for a team which endured its share of adversity in the early Jamie Joseph years but which came up trumps in 2015 and appears as close-knit as any in the competition.

“It’s a special team in the respect that we are nomads, really,” Wheeler said. “We come from all over the country from Northland to Invercargill and Japan. We all go down there for one reason and that is to play Super Rugby and hopefully become an All Black.

“When you have a team that doesn’t know each other … you’ve only got one choice and that is to buy into that team culture and buy into the whole mantra of numbers 1-39, the brotherhood, we’ve got down there, and get into it, because it can be a lonely place if you don’t.

“The footy team, the Highlanders, the club, it becomes your family in many respects.

“It’s pretty special and everyone’s encouraged to show their personality in the team and I think you see that in a lot of the stuff that we do. We have a lot of fun.”

This is a theme that was endorsed by former Highlanders coach (and now current Japan coach) Jamie Joseph at the start of their glorious 2015 season.

Kazuki Himeno has been quickly embraced by the Highlanders and after missing the first few matches for New Zealand’s southernmost franchise, has now nailed a starting role in the No 8 jersey. (Photo by John Davidson/Photosport)

In an interview with ESPN, Joseph explained how the Highlanders turned what should be a negative into a positive.

“First and foremost, I genuinely believe this club’s geography is a crucial plank of the Highlanders’ and local rugby’s identity,” Joseph said. “We’re right down in the depths of the South Island and I believe that right since the pioneers, we’ve been heavily about our regional identity and, as a result, have punched above our weight.

“One of our values is what we call 1-39, which effectively means that there are no stars. The stars are the 39 players in our squad. Our strength is being a cohesive team as opposed to relying on a few big names. We’ve got a set of real team players. Those … All Blacks who we have this year are brilliant players and they are important ingredients in what we’re about and the success we’ve had, but all 39 guys know that no one is more important than anyone else in this squad.”

The Highlanders have been plagued by inconsistency this season. A brilliant win against the Crusaders was followed by a meek defeat to the Chiefs which led to coach Brown ruling out a finals appearance. That in turn was backed up by another excellent victory over the Blues which left the door slightly ajar until the Chiefs beat the Hurricanes over the weekend.

So a place in the final is off the cards for 2021, but they have once again entertained and displayed their unique spirit, one that is easy for supporters of all franchises to get behind. 

The enduring memories of the Highlanders in the second year of Super Rugby Aotearoa will be halfback Aaron Smith’s continued excellence alongside a rising star in Folau Fakatava, the sight of wing Jona Nareki in his jet-heeled boots, and the emergence of another folk hero in the form of Kazuki Himeno, a highly entertaining player who appears to play for all the right reasons and in the right Highlanders traditions – for the game and for fun.

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