Super Rugby
We are what we are: Highlanders culture explained
Will Macpherson
February 26, 2015
Jamie Joseph is leading a revival of the Highlanders' rugby identity and culture © Getty Images

The Highlanders have long seemed a club apart, from their Kiwi conference colleagues, the rest of Super Rugby and the wider rugby world. Sure, they're geographically distinct as the southernmost side about, but there's more: Otago Rugby has a distinct culture, identity and ethos; an insatiable appetite for expansive rugby; a downright nutty set of fans; and a world-class cauldron of a stadium in which to house them. As I discovered at the Southern Derby, Dunedin's a pretty special place come game day, a blur of blue and gold, a feral frenzy of freshers and - eventually, and almost invariably - an unpredictable feast of attacking, end-to-end rugby.

All Black Jamie Joseph finds his way blocked by Springbok prop Balie Swart, South Africa v New Zealand, World Cup final, Ellis Park, June 24 1995
Jamie Joseph played 20 Tests, but "his rugby oozed Otago" © Getty Images

Speaking to coach Jamie Joseph the day after their defeat by the Crusaders - a game and a performance that, it has to be said, bore all the Highlanders' hallmarks described above - it's not hard to see how this culture is flourishing once more in the deep south. Joseph has gone from student of the philosophy in the halcyon days of the 1990s to the architect and sculptor of a revival. The All Blacks as a side are so all-encompassing in New Zealand that those who don the jersey are defined by it for decades after. But for Joseph - who played 20 Tests - that always seemed incidental: he grew up elsewhere but his rugby oozed Otago, and it is that for which he will be remembered; no one is better placed to talk about rugby's role in these parts.

"First and foremost, I genuinely believe this club's geography is a crucial plank of the Highlanders' and local rugby's identity," Joseph tells ESPN. "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."

The idea of punching above their weight pops up throughout our conversation, driven both by my preconceptions, and Joseph's sporting ideology. In 2014, they were tipped by most to finish at the table's depth - and by some to end rock bottom of Super Rugby. In the end, they were third in the New Zealand conference and sixth overall, ahead of squads with far greater international depth and far bigger names. In the Southern Derby, the Crusaders were missing more All Blacks - Dan Carter, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read etc - than the Highlanders boast in their whole squad. That said, the trio of All Blacks in the blue and gold are pretty exciting: Aaron and Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa.

"Many of the ideas we work on now, ethos-wise were born out of that 2013 season ... the ideas we had before were only reinforced by it, too."

Speaking to Joseph reminds me of a line from This Sporting Life, the rugby league film set in the north of England in the 1960s, when the protagonist Richard Harris says "we don't have stars in this game; that's soccer". The Highlanders' ethos in 2015 runs exactly along those lines, moulded by both history and experience. They've always seemed a humble club, but in 2013, they recruited ambitiously and ended up with a squad containing 11 All Blacks, including Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock. It was a disaster; the project bombed completely and those big names were up and away once more, hence the morbid predictions ahead of their impressive 2014 recovery that few see abating this time round.

"Many of the ideas we work on now, ethos-wise were born out of that 2013 season," Joseph says. "The ideas we had before were only reinforced by it, too. We had 11 All Blacks that year, many of them were brand new down here, and we ended up losing the first eight games; it just didn't work. For two years when we were in charge, we had a pretty low-key squad like the one we have today; then we got lots of stars in and we had tried to fast track out progress but it didn't work, so we've gone back to basics. This is absolutely no slight on the likes of Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu, who bring plenty to any team they play in and worked hard; but for us it saw a loss of cohesion, which is what we're all about.

"But now, we're trying to rekindle that spirit that we had. Guys like myself, Tony Brown and others were involved and we're trying to bring back those values."

"One of our values is what we call 1-39, which is 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 three 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. That's one of the reasons for our split captaincy. Ben Smith's a wonderful player but plays pretty much every game for us and the All Blacks; it's a massive workload, and we're lucky to have Nasi Manu, who is a champion leader, so they share the burden. We're a club that prides ourselves on communication and how much we talk with one another, whether that's the coaches with the players or the players with each other. Anything that disrupts that doesn't really fit our identity."

Malakia Fekitoa headed south from Auckland in search of an opportunity © Getty Images

Identity; cohesion; ethos. These are the words that just keep popping up, and there's not a flicker of doubt in Joseph's voice as he says them: he's thoroughly invested in the project. Looking down the squad list, however, it can't be all that easy to create that cohesion. Among Joseph's 39 are players from 12 different ITM Cup sides and all different corners of the country. Joseph is unfazed by this, though, and believes that Otago Rugby has been a disparate but cohesive unit for far longer than the Highlanders have been around.

Josh Kronfeld of the Highlanders attempts to power through a Crusaders tackle, Highlanders v Crusaders, Super 12 final, Carisbrook, May 30 1999.
The Highlanders team of the 1990s, featuring Josh Kronfeld, featured "guys from all over the place [with] genuine team spirit" © Getty Images

"Having the university here has always helped," he says about his alma mater, and New Zealand's oldest uni, the University of Otago. "When I was a player down here, the university brought in a lot of talent and guys like me who were from elsewhere would come down here and play. In that team from the 1990s, there were guys from all over the place, who blended well with the country players down south. We were organised and had genuine team spirit.

"Then rugby went professional in the middle of that decade and that culture of guys coming for university dried up a bit, because they could go to university anywhere and could become professionals at the age of 18 or 19 and perhaps not study like we did.

"But now, we're trying to rekindle that spirit that we had. Guys like myself, Tony Brown and others were involved and we're trying to bring back those values. We're basing our philosophy on rugby on the same thing and we think it's starting to work. We don't mind where guys come from in the country because we're confident we can get everyone reading off the same page."

How then, does the talent identification work so well, for seemingly such a small club? Are the sunny-donning scouts at every game in the country? Or is it just a bit of luck? Whatever it is, it's undoubtedly produced moments of inspiration: Fekitoa was plucked as an unknown from Auckland and took Super Rugby by storm; Aaron Smith came down from Manakau and is unchallenged in the All Blacks No.9 jersey.

"Out scouting is pretty simple," Joseph smiles. "We watch a hell of a lot of rugby up and down the country, and nothing passes through our net. That's how you pluck a gem like Malakai from under somebody else's nose."

This is all simple stuff: it's just hard graft, whether that be in creating a culture, identifying their players, or blending them together; little wonder they punch above their weight.

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