This article originally appeared on Stuff and is reproduced with permission
Fights in the post-season get-together. Broken trust between players and coaches. A feeling that some All Blacks imports were just “counting their money”: the Highlanders’ tumultuous 2013 season has finally been laid bare.
In a candid new Sky documentary, 1-39 Highlanderspast and present Highlanders players and coaches including Aaron Smith, Tony Brown, Ben Smith, Jamie Joseph and Nasi Manu discuss the high and lows of the club since the formation of Super Rugby.
It emerges that the horror 2013 season, when Joseph’s decision to recruit the likes of All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock went badly wrong, became the pivotal year of the club’s existence.
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That season was the nadir before the recovery that led to the 2015 Super Rugby title, and a pained Aaron Smith makes it clear there was “poison” in the dressing room.
“We were talking about championships before we even got to a playoff,” Smith said. “But that doesn’t buy you a championship.
“…it wasn’t built through hard work and trust and selflessness and doing your job creates a try for others, or wanting to tackle for your mate.
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“Or were they [the All Blacks] just counting their money? Were they here just to get a bonus check and get ready for the All Blacks, some of them?
“It’s hard to say, but that’s what I saw.”
Smith also pointed to rancorous parties after the season had finished, when ill-feeling that had been building up within the squad exploded.
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“There were fights,” Smith said. “You shouldn’t fight your team-mates. That’s one sign I knew there was poison.”
Manu’s role in saving the Highlanders from themselves also becomes clear. The iconic Highlanders No.8 was injured in the first game of the season, and was therefore at a slight distance from the playing squad.
From that viewpoint, he could see the unhappiness building, and said that “double standards” started to creep in when the Highlanders’ All Blacks weren’t being pulled up by the coaches for errors in the same way that younger players were.
Despite being raised to respect his elders, Manu – already with one eye on the 2014 season – fronted Joseph at the end of the campaign and told him how the players were really feeling, and how they could fix it.
At the end of that meeting, Joseph had effectively offered Manu the co-captaincy, and the rest is history.
The subsequent years saw the Highlanders forge a new identity – one built on hard work and honesty – that led them to the 2015 Super Rugby title, despite not having a single All Black in their pack.
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The documentary also takes a fond look back to the start of Super Rugby, when terms such as ‘conditioning’ were alien to most players.
The disappointment of the lost 1999 final is also covered, and interviews with Josh Kronfeld and Jeff Wilson show that the hurt still lingers.
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