Super Rugby
Fun at heart of Highlanders' 'Brotherhood'
Sam Bruce
May 29, 2015
Lima Sopoaga has been in fine form for the Highlanders this season © Getty Images

The Highlanders look set to make the Super Rugby play-offs for the second straight year after returning from a three-week road trip with two impressive wins. But while other sides might be attempting to shut themselves away in pursuit of the post-season, the men from Dunedin aren't about to stray from one of key their core values: fun.

For just as the city's Forsyth Barr Stadium is arguably the most entertaining place to watch a game of rugby, due largely to the half-time activities and the university party zone known as The Zoo, the Highlanders, too, know the value of a good time.

"It's [camaraderie] is right up there - we call it the 'brotherhood' here and it is pretty strong," in-form fly-half Lima Sopoaga told ESPN on Thursday. "It comes down to the coaching staff leading that and we've got a pretty good team. [Lock] Joe Wheeler runs a lot of that stuff for us; he's a pretty integral part and he's been very special for this group and has brought some great stuff to the table. And everyone just buys in, and we all enjoy each other's company. And at the end of the day, we know we're in a pretty stressful environment but it's also just a game at the end of the day and we all just enjoying playing it."

The franchise's antics can be seen on Highlanders TV, the franchise's YouTube channel, with Wheeler proving an engaging and entertaining host. Earlier this year, in an appearance on New Zealand television show The Crowd Goes Wild, Wheeler was central to a viral video sensation when he was joined by a semi-naked Fumiaki Tanaka - the Highlanders' Japanese import and back-up No.9 to Aaron Smith.

The Highlanders also boast the player with what is surely the best nickname in Super Rugby, if not world rugby, in Richard 'The Barracuda' Buckman; the alias can be traced back to Wheeler following a diving charter on last year's South African tour. There's even a song to match.

Wheeler may not have matched his nickname efforts on the Highlanders' recent trip to the Republic, where they were first beaten by the Lions but then bounced back with a bonus-point win over the Cheetahs, but he travelled despite his season-ending knee injury to ensure the players were able to unwind and foster the ideal touring environment.

"If you watch the [NRL] Footy Show, they do a segment called 'Perfect Partners'; and Joey Wheeler did something like that for us boys, which was a bit of a surprise," Sopoaga told ESPN. "But he did really well and there were a few good laughs and a few good stories. But, yeah, we've got some characters in the team, and those three probably top the list; and there a couple of others that probably float under the radar."

Judging by the extent of their off-field activities, Jamie Joseph's side, for the uninitiated, may appear to be far more interested in the next prank rather than their next Super Rugby fixture. But's it's the ability to go to work when necessary, and put the fun and games on hold, which have seen them develop such a revered culture - and driven them to within striking distance of another playoffs appearance.

"That's the good thing about this team; we have a good balance between fun and game mode," Sopoaga said as the Highlanders completed preparation to play the Chiefs in their final home game of the regular season. "And I think our results show for itself; we're right in the mixer heading into the business end of the season and we're still having fun now. But we know when it comes to training and when it's time to be serious we all switch on and buy in. But also as soon as it's time to kick back and have a laugh, we do that as well; so it's really good."

The Highlanders will flick the switch to game mode on Saturday evening as they head even further south than their usual Dunedin home in a return to one of the franchise's other member unions: Southland. A proud rugby destination, Invercargill is home to some of New Zealand's most passionate support and the Highlanders are keen to reward the fans with a win over New Zealand conference rivals the Chiefs.

"Any team that is coached by [Chiefs coach] Dave Rennie is a quality side, and they've got players right across the park that can turn the game and break one open," Sopoaga said. "So we've got to come prepared and come ready; but we're playing in front of our people down in Invercargill so we're looking forward to putting a good effort in for them.

"The New Zealand derbies are always pretty brutal and we've got some big games coming up. But we'll just take it a week at a time, like we have all season, and see how we go and whatever happens, happens; and hopefully we're there at the business end."

A return to the "business end" looks like being a mere formality, but the subject of the next Highlanders TV spot, on the other hand, is anyone's guess. The common link between the two? You can bet the Highlanders will be having fun.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Live Sports

Communication error please reload the page.