Cape Town - Schalk Burger has described Super Rugby as a fickle competition, with the Reds’ recovery from a bottom position on the log in 2010 to champions in 2011 being used to illustrate his point.
The supersport.com website reports that the Highlanders would be just as good an example if they manage to beat the Cell C Sharks in the first match in the Super Rugby play-off series in Durban at the weekend and then go on from there to win the competition.
Already, their season has been a fairytale for them if you consider that last year they spent much of the season languishing near the bottom of the log, and lost to the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
It has only been in the last two weeks that the Highlanders have re-ignited memories of their troublesome 2013 campaign, which started off with high expectations and then plunged after an opening defeat to the Chiefs was followed by an unexpectedly one-side home defeat to the at that stage unheralded Cheetahs.
Playing away against the two teams that Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph described as the best in the competition, the Waratahs and the Crusaders, the team from Dunedin struggled to remain competitive and slipped from a potential second or third placed finish to sixth.
It was their disastrous two last games that condemned the Highlanders to doing it the hard way, with the tough trip across the Indian Ocean to Durban to play the Sharks being the one that all the other Australasian teams in the top six would have been desperate to avoid.
As the Sharks players and coach Jake White have admitted at the start of the build-up to Saturday’s clash at Kings Park, the Highlanders’ chances of threatening the home team could depend heavily on the availability of All Black fullback Ben Smith.
One of the most dangerous attacking players in the world, Smith’s counter-attacking abilities means that whether he is playing or not will make a big difference to the Sharks’ kicking game on Saturday.
Smith has the ability to turn a defensive situation into a try with the blink of an eye, and he was at the heart of much of what went right for the Highlanders when they comprehensively outplayed the Sharks last time they were in Durban for a league match a few months ago.
The Sharks have remembered that, and as scrumhalf Charl McLeod put it, the hosts are going to have to be extremely accurate with their field kicking.
“Poor kicks against the Highlanders are punished, we learned that last time we played them,” said McLeod.
The Sharks do play a game which has a heavy emphasis on kicking, and if Smith is lining up in the Highlanders No 15 jersey against them, it could increase the need for the tactical kicking skills and decision making abilities of Pat Lambie to be included in the selection mix.
On Wednesday afternoon it was still not clear whether either Smith or Lambie will be playing in the Durban game, although it is understood that Smith, who missed the final league game against the Crusaders through a leg infection that forced him to be rushed to hospital after the loss to the Waratahs in Sydney, has flown to Durban with the squad.
While the Highlanders have not made the knock-out stages of Super Rugby for 12 years, and have only one win to show from the five play-off games the franchise has participated in since the start of the SANZAR era in 1996, there is a bit of history on the Highlanders’ side that coach Joseph may want to draw on as he tries to motivate his team in the build-up.
Only two teams have come to South Africa from New Zealand and won a play-off game, and they both hail from the south island.
The Crusaders did it two years ago when they upset the Stormers in their own back yard in a semi-final, and before that it was the Highlanders who did the trick against the same opponents and at the same venue in 1999.
That will be remembered as the match that was overshadowed by news of a threatened Stormers player-strike, which broke in a Cape Town newspaper on the morning of the game and which had ramifications for the coaches, franchise and players that extended long after the final whistle had sounded on a 33-18 defeat.
The Stormers started as overwhelming favourites to win as they had enjoyed a dream season and had finished second to the Reds, and an 11-0 lead early in the game suggested that they would wrap it up quite easily.
However, the Highlanders fought back and then took full control to book themselves a passage back home to a Dunedin final against Crusaders, which they lost.
The other semi-finals that the Highlanders participated in all ended in defeat, and all of them were played away from home.
In 1998 they lost 37-31 to the Blues in Auckland, in 2000 they were thumped 37-15 by the Crusaders in Christchurch, which was also the venue for their last appearance in a play-off game, with Crusaders winning 34-23 in 2002.