Highlanders misfits light up Super Rugby

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Those pampered by big-city comforts might not be thrilled by the entertainment options of the Otago region's principal town, notwithstanding its rowdy student population during term time.

Players raised in gentler climates might find the Antarctic blasts that pound the harbour city during bone-chilling winters a test.

Yet the Otago Highlanders have become an unlikely attraction for Super Rugby cast-offs in New Zealand and the team's success at coaxing the best out of them has been a big factor in their run to a first semi-final in 13 years.

On Sunday, Fiji-born winger Waisake Naholo became the team's latest rough diamond to turn potential All Black when he was named in a 41-man squad on the strength of a breakout season.

The 24-year-old could not crack a game at the Auckland Blues but has scored a franchise record 11 tries at his new club this season.

Team mate Lima Sopoaga was also named in the All Blacks squad, though the flyhalf took longer to blossom after heading south from Wellington in 2011.

The pair join established international team mate Malakai Fekitoa, the Tonga-born centre, who also struggled at Auckland before breaking into the All Blacks after a marauding debut season with the Jamie Joseph-coached Highlanders last year.

“We get a lot of people from outside the region here but they come down and they get a real sense of who the people are here and that very solid foundation of character,” Highlanders assistant coach Scott McLeod told Reuters.

“They want to represent that and buy into it.

“We work hard on our brotherhood. You see that on and off the field. The more success you get and the pressure in hard situations, that tends to grow and strengthen. That's something we care about and we rely on.”

The Highlanders have only three capped All Blacks - Fekitoa, scrumhalf Aaron Smith and utility back Ben Smith - in their roster, while New Zealand's other four Super Rugby teams are full of established internationals.

Yet the Highlanders showed up their rivals by finishing the regular season second in the New Zealand conference and on Saturday tackle the defending champion New South Wales Waratahs for a place in a first Super Rugby final since 1999.

The team's success has created a buzz among Dunedin's 120,000 residents not felt for years, and 22,000 crammed into their home Forsyth Barr stadium to see the Highlanders defeat a strong Waikato Chiefs side in their playoff on Saturday.

The electric atmosphere was a far cry from the sparse crowds that braved winter nights at their former Carisbrook home in the not-too-distant past.

After the turn of the century, and with the retirement of a golden generation of players including Jeff Wilson and former skipper Taine Randell, the Highlanders' hopes of a maiden Super Rugby title were buried in a barren 12-year run broken by last year's return to the playoffs.

The Waratahs, coached by Wallabies mentor Michael Cheika and boasting a raft of capped internationals, now await in Sydney, having enjoyed the luxury of a week off for finishing in the top two at the end of the regular season.

“They're a big powerful team who play intelligently and have been playing very well of late, so we respect them a lot,” McLeod said of the Waratahs. – Reuters

Original source: Highlanders misfits light up Super Rugby

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