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Prove Why Posted about 1 year ago

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Photo: Bleacher Report

Prove why

It was a simple message that adorned the boots of Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith but a powerful one.

It was a reminder, in case he needed one, that some believed his unfancied team were not deserving of a place in the Super Rugby title-decider against the Hurricanes.

Riled by a perceived lack of respect from their rivals and the media, Smith and his team-mates were determined to silence their critics and they did just that with a lung-busting, awe-inspiring and against-the-odds performance that propelled them to a memorable 21-14 victory over their Kiwi rivals.

That siege mentality was fostered by coach Jamie Joseph who has been equally frustrated at the lack of recognition for his side and in particular a pack that may not contain any current internationals but proved more than a match for the best of the rest in the competition.

“They aren’t All Blacks, they aren’t Wallabies, they aren’t Springboks but they are very good rugby players,” insisted Joseph, having seen his side account for defending champions the Waratahs in the semi-finals.

“It still surprises me, in many ways it seems that we’ve fooled the rugby community,” he continued. “They still don’t quite believe in us, what else can these guys do?”

That desire to prove their doubters wrong may well have extended beyond the players to Joseph himself with many having questioned his position within the organisation after a fruitless few years.

Certainly his record would have cost him his job at many leading teams on the elite stage.

After missing out on the Hurricanes job in 2011 and later stepping down at Wellington and moved south to take charge at the Highlanders, no doubt with the intent of showing his previous employers they had opted for the wrong man.

But success and that ‘I told you so’ moment proved elusive. The Highlanders finished eighth in his first season at the helm and then dropped to ninth the following year.

Hopes were raised when All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock joined the franchise ahead of the 2013 campaign – joining fellow internationals such as Aaron Smith, Andrew Hore, Brad Thorn and Colin Slade – but they did not have the desired effect – far from it.

They slumped once again and finished 14th in the table with only three victories to their name from their 16 games.

There was no way to dress up what was quite clearly ‘coach-killing’ form but the Highlanders stuck by their man and were rewarded for their faith and for their patience with Joseph growing as a coach as his side grew in stature on the field.

The Highlanders turned the corner last year and made the play-offs only to exit at the first hurdle against The Sharks but it instilled invaluable belief in both Joseph and his players.

It also further fuelled the strong team culture that Joseph was developing and which would eventually carry them to glory.

The team’s philosophy, labelled ‘1 to 39’ in reference to their squad numbers, emphasised that everyone had their part to play with contributions from all the players both sought and valued.

The result was what Joseph has described as ‘real resolve, real honesty’ and of course a first Super Rugby title.

A former All Blacks flanker with a formidable reputation for physicality, Joseph forged a similar no-nonsense reputation as a coach with first Wellington and then the Maori All Blacks before taking on the Highlanders.

But former assistant Simon Culhane insists there is more to him than that and recently told Stuff.co.nz that “Joseph ’is an articulate, deep thinking man. Strong minded and strong-willed, yes, but he has a good understanding of the game.”

The influence of Joseph’s current assistants; Scott McLeod, Jon Preston and Tony Brown, also cannot be overlooked with the latter hailed as a key figure in the Highlanders’ devastating attack this season.

But Brown’s role extends beyond the technicalities to motivational speaking with fly-half Liam Sopoaga revealing ahead of kick off that the former All Blacks playmaker had urged his players to remember that ’it’s just a game and to go out and enjoy it’ – and they did just that.

The Highlanders were playing in only their second Super Rugby final and their first since 1999 but they thrived on the intense pressure of the occasion and along with a Hurricanes side worthy of equal credit for their willingness to play, produced one of the most thrilling title-deciders the competition has ever seen.

It was also a great advert for Super Rugby at the end of a season that may not have always hit such heights but this game served as a reminder that New Zealand rugby continues to set the global standard.

Relatively unknown players are now not just local heroes but headline-grabbing stars with the likes of Sopoaga and winger Waisake Naholo recently joining centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrum-half Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith in the All Blacks training squad while a host of other Highlanders are poised for Maori All Blacks duty.

And while he still has another year to run on his current contract, you can expect the Highlanders to try and tie down Joseph to a new deal and continue the good work he has done.

They finally have the respect and recognition they deserve.

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist and former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com. He has been reporting on sport for over 20 years for various media outlets including the BBC and ESPN with the majority dedicated to the game they play in heaven. A veteran of four World Cups, England's 2003 triumph remains the most memorable moment of his professional career closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal

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