Written by Max Sharp.
Simply put... yes.
Three words does not make for an academic, entertaining, or controversial enough article though.
While Tony Brown's side have an incredibly slim chance of winning the competition, a sudden increase in form has propelled the team into Super Rugby Pacific's top 8 sides. As the table stands, the Highlanders would be playing the Blues at Eden Park, in a repeat of the 2021 Grand Final, for the 2022 Quarter-Finals.
Despite their match-up taking place based on the table's current standings, there's a huge contrast between the teams. The Blues (45 table points) have won 10 games out of 11, the Highlanders (17 table points) have won a mere 3 games of 11. With fixtures against the Force (10th place), Waratahs (6th place) and Rebels (9th place) to come, this is entirely possible.
Making the top 8 will of course put the Highlanders in title contention, so we'll read through exactly what has kept the Dunedin-based club in contention throughout 2022.
Max Sharp and Hugh Renton meet over Zoom for a Q+A.
I attended high school with Hugh Renton, a real talent of a loose forward, who wore jersey 20 for the Highlanders against the Reds.
Renton explained the importance of team culture in the Highlanders in a 2021 Q+A with myself, this was probably the main takeaway from the Q+A; as he named it as a very important factor towards their route to the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Final.
The importance of team culture appears to be coming up again this season; in the last two Highlanders matches, we have seen them come back from a half time deficit against the Fijian Drua and the Reds, only to go on and defeat their opposition.
Good team culture allows for players to trust one another on the pitch and work through processes no matter the situation or scoreline. This culture has bred immense mental toughness, fortitude of this kind is what allows for comebacks in sport.
Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs fans will argue strongly on this point, but the Highlanders have the best front row in Super Rugby Pacific.
Though he has missed a few games due to illness and injury, former All Black Liam Coltman's experience has been huge for the team. Coltman has represented the club over 100 times and played the last of his 8 test caps in the 2019 Rugby World Cup's bronze final. Having a cool head who has been-there-done-that, has kept the team within range of their opponents throughout the first half of many games. Some journalists have criticised Coltman's lineout throwing, but this would probably reflect more so on the locks. Coltman ranks 49th for most tackles at the time of this article, with 71 for the season.
At loosehead prop, Ethan de Groot is probably the team's most-improved player. Though de Groot is a bit further down the tackle charts, his accuracy has been outstanding, he had completed 59 of his 62 tackle attempts; so has a completion rate of 95% after 10 games. de Groot deserves nothing short of more game time in the black jersey, while Daniel Lienert-Brown has often backed de Groot up off the bench. Lienert-Brown has put on lots of weight in his career, but this has made him into a far better player than a few years back, he tends to bring lots of energy off the bench.
The Highlanders have not been outperformed at scrum win percentage since 16th April this year either, so big credit also goes to former Wallaby, Jermaine Ainsley, who has locked down the number 3 jersey. Ainsley has run 200 metres off 42 carries this year, having added real strength to the attack. Ainsley's tackle percentage remains at 90% too; even though he ranks 39th for most tackles in the competition. He is now eligible for the All Blacks thanks to being born in Cromwell, so if called up to the All Blacks, accept him to accept the offer; he said he would do so in a Q+A with myself!
Jermaine Ainsley in a Q+A with Max Sharp, about his career.
One final pat on the back for the front rowers, is for the set piece stats. The team has won 96% of their own rucks, 92% of their own scrums and 91% of their lineouts.
The minute he is eligible for the All Blacks, he must become a regular starter immediately.
Though he did have one poor performance earlier in the season, he has single-handedly run the team's game plan for every minute he has played lately. Fakatava has been involved with every try the Highlanders have scored with him on the field in the last 4 games; he ranks 14th for Try Assists this season and ranks 12th for most passes, averaging 29.6 per match; even though he averages just 24.2 minutes per game. Most impressively, his tackle success remains at 76%.
While this could be a matter of Aaron Smith being ready to retire at the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the team has looked better every time Fakatava joined the match off the bench this season.
Although the Aaron Smith and Mitch Hunt have been producing poor tactical kicking through the season, the outside backs have been making defensive misreads and the loose forwards have been hit by injuries to Billy Harmon, Shannon Frizell and Gareth Evans throughout the season, the team is improving rapidly with just 3 round-robin matches left.
Though the odds are heavily stacked against the team, who has a coach that will not be re-signed for 2023, they are never out until the finale. This is a tough team full of experienced players, who want to give it all for the remaining time of their career.
Would I bet any money on the Highlanders winning? No. But it still remains possible for them. As George Lucas' Star Wars character Han Solo once said, "Never tell me the odds!". Do not write the Highlanders off.