Friday, 22 February 2013

Why the Highlanders will always be also-rans

I was in Dunedin in the glory days of  Otago and the Highlanders. This was a team composed of grizzled locals and skillful, often intelligent, students. Yet always, despite their potential they could never scale the heights they threatened, for the required consistency was never there. They were capable of audacious moments, periods of great drama, yet also  too capable of losing games they needed to win. In this they mirrored the lifestyle and out-look of the scarfie. The student life is one of peaks and troughs, of playing hard and working hard, of giving things a go because now seems to the right time to do so. The glory of university is that it is a time of privileged escape from the mundane demands of the rest of the world. I won't say the 'real world' for, sociologically speaking, the claim of a particular part of the world, or society being 'more real' than another is meaningless.

What university- and a university town- offer is the experience of the tensions of tradition and innovation, of being accountable and being given on-going chances, of exploring new options and choosing some badly, of living life most often in the present. Those Otago and Highlanders teams had the advantage of being able to attract students and hangers-on who wished to live, study and play rugby in an environment that was- and still is- New Zealand's only university town. Crucially, it was a time when the university was smaller and its reputation as a party -town was secondary to that of a student life-style. The  difference is significant. The student lifestyle attracts a different type of person to that of the party-town. For to maintain a play-hard/work-hard attitude is in the end the ethos of the amateur. The question is raised of how many of the great Otago and Highlanders players of the past would have decided to pursue a professional rugby career from the age of 20? Of course many of them did so at a latter age but they still played with the ethos of the amateur.

In this they reflect the ethos of that constantly shifting body of students who make up the bulk of Highlanders supporters. Students are amateur in ethos for they are in that transition zone between school and career, teenage years and the career-demands of adulthood. A clinical, fully professional team doesn't fit. Secondly, the 'almost achievers' legacy of the past sits heavily upon the town. The Forsyth Barr stadium squats  as a forlorn, expensive expression of the mantra of 'Field of Dreams': "if you build it, they will come".  This may being true of the fans who were not turning up to Carisbrook and now turn up to be be as much part of the crowd experience as they are to necessarily watch rugby.  But building a new stadium does not easily result in  creating a championship-winning or even conference-winning team. The players who are attracted to come south are not necessarily easily integrated into  becoming a coherent, consistent team.  To import stars, often ageing stars, nearing the end-years of their career speaks of the problem of attempting to build a team from the players  already available. These imports may be the gritty professionals, but we see very few of the gifted amateur. This means the Highlanders teams have suffered from being neither the expression  of the gifted amateur nor the gritty professionalism of the modern professional team. They can at times play both- and to marry them together as they did at times last season gives continual hope to all who do or have once supported them in person. Yet as tonight's loss to the Chiefs demonstrated, in the end they lack a consistency of both options- neither gifted amateur enough nor coolly and clinically professional.   Further, to have to choose a winger as your Captain speaks of a startling  and concerning lack of possibilities elsewhere on the field.

What we saw tonight was a team of journeymen who could sparkle individually at times but lacked both the sustained discipline of the professional and the sustained collective attitude of possibility of the amateur. It may be too early to call, but I fear the Highlanders are going to end up bottom of the New Zealand conference.

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