Elliot Dixon, Jackson Hemopo and Tom Franklin of the Highlanders during the round five Super Rugby match against the Crusaders (Photo by Rob Jefferies/Getty Images).

The lost boys who find a home at the Highlanders

Last week the Highlanders reigned victorious over the Crusaders in the southern derby. Scotty Stevenson explores the metaphysical reasons why they beat the old foes from up the road.

Dan Pryor stood on the concrete concourse of Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night wearing a faded Swanndri and approximately fourteen kilograms of dreadlocks. In his left hand was a beer; on his face was his trademark goofy grin. He was not fully recovered from his latest injury so had volunteered his time to mingle with staff from a Highlanders corporate sponsor who had booked the Eastern end of the stadium for the evening’s clash with the Crusaders.

In many respects, Dan Pryor was as far removed as possible from the people with whom he chatted so effortlessly. For starters, few were Māori. Even fewer knew the fishing spots of Northland. None, one suspects, could have claimed to have played the best part of two seasons of professional rugby with most of the functional tendons of a knee pretty much missing.

And yet here he was, in every other sense right at home, surrounded by his people. If the Highlanders have one thing that no other team can replicate, it is the total buy-in of the players to the distinctly southern culture of the region. They may come from all corners of the country, but once in Dunedin, they are all of Dunedin. In that moment, just before kick off as the sun began to sink and the zoo began to fill, Dan Pryor was the most Highlanders thing of all: a local.

History will record a Highlanders win in the match that followed that moment. They harangued and harried the Crusaders, they ran unorthodox attack lines and trailed in the wake of Tevita Li as he craved through transition defensive lines. They willed the ball to bounce their way, coached the referee, pushed every envelope and crossed all imaginary lines. And with every big hit, and forced error, and turnover play, and dominant tackle, they patted each other on the back and watched Aaron Smith howl at the moon.

Ruby Tui, a savagely effective defensive juggernaut for the Black Ferns sevens team, called the Highlanders forwards “a pack of wolves”. They smell blood, stalk their prey, tear into any carcass that comes their way. And they do it with a consistency and sense of purpose that is frankly frightening. They have made 152 tackles per game so far this season. No team has made more. More impressive still: they have the best tackle percentage in the competition.

It is often said that defence is about attitude. If that is the case, the Highlanders truly love tackling. They also love scrummaging. In fact, it could be said they love anything that involves a collective effort. That includes chasing kicks, and disrupting lineouts, and winning turnovers, which they do with more regularity than all but a handful of teams. And they win them at crucial times – Ash Dixon to stymie a traditional Crusaders’ fourth quarter comeback, for instance. Ash Dixon, who is about as Dunedin as a warm ocean, but as Highlanders as they get.

Just like Dillon Hunt, the former Westlake College boy who came of age last year and who last Saturday made 17 tackles while going largely unnoticed by the paying public. Just like Luke Whitelock who drove south five hours from Christchurch and somehow turned into the hardest tackling number eight in the competition. If he left Canterbury with a chip on his shoulder he has spent the last two years burying it in so many rib cages.

There are others, like Tevita Li who managed to post 134 running metres on Saturday, invariably leaving would-be tacklers trailing (flailing?) in his wake. This is Tevita Li from Massey on the Western edge of North Harbour. He may as well have been raised in a swede patch in Springhills, such is the perfection of his fit in this team. Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga? We know they’re Highlanders through and through, from Wellington and Manawatu.

On the bench that night was Alex Ainley, from Tasman, and Joe Wheeler from Boomtown who is so in tune with the place the Highlanders wanted him back for morale. He isn’t even playing. He’s just, you know, there.

They are 3-0 to start the season. Their best start since 2015, the year they won their maiden title when Marty Banks slotted a dropped goal in the final against the team that spat him out the year before. Marty fucken Banks. They face the Hurricanes again this week, away from Forsyth Barr and the zoo and the aftermath at the Lone Star. It will likely be the craziest game of the round. No, it definitely will be.

On Saturday night at full time, Dan Pryor wandered away from his mingling role and stood on the middle of the field chatting to his victorious team mates, still smiling, looking right at home with this mongrel bunch in blue and gold and maroon. Meanwhile, Aaron Mauger, Glenn Delaney and Mark Hammett each cracked a stubby of Speight’s in the coaches box and toasted the victory. All three men are Cantabrians. but that was the most Highlanders thing of all.


This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.

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