Super Rugby 2020: Competition reset provides lifeline for struggling Highlanders

Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger admits the revamped Super Rugby Aotearoa competition presents a chance for his team to reset a season that was headed nowhere fast.

Before COVID-19 forced a suspension of the traditional SANZAAR form in March, the southerners had staggered to a one-win, four-loss record, with their last scheduled outing against the Jaguares called off.

Rocked by off-season defections, the 2015 champions were headed for the NZ conference wooden spoon, already 10 competition points adrift of the next-worst Hurricanes (4-2).

New Zealand's coronavirus lockdown has provided six weeks to take stock.  

"Five games, five performances and probably only a couple of those performances we were proud of," reflects Mauger.

"There was some honesty around our preparation and how we set ourselves up for that performance. That's everybody - coaches and players.

"Monday was an opportunity for us to dump that and look forward. We've got a really exciting opportunity ahead of us with this new, unique competition.

"This is a good opportunity for a reset, not just for this team, but for our community. We want to go out there, and be really proud of our performances for this club and the people we represent."

When play resumes next month, the slate will be wiped clean, with the just five NZ franchises contesting a fresh home-and-away series.

Considering the last five Super Rugby champions - and seven of the last eight - have come from these shores, the format arguably showcases the very best the southern hemisphere has to offer, with few 'gimmes'.

"It's pretty intense," admits All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith. "I'm still trying to get my head around it.

"In three weeks, we've got to play a death match against the Chiefs. I can't wait."

Smith, 31, has reported for duty fizzing and ready to charge, after training throughout the lockdown period. 

"As an All Black, we're lucky we get those 7-8 week blocks at the end of each year, so I knew the timeframe and how to keep myself in shape," he says.

"I had a real goal about how I wanted to show up for our Highlanders team. As a leader of this group, I wanted to turn up Monday and show I hadn't lost anything."

Mauger and Smith put a big emphasis on "connection" through isolation, something that spurred players to maintain fitness.

"We had a lull early on, where we didn't have a lot of clarity on how it looked," says Smith. "But we put a lot of effort in, our chat came alive and that really helped the group come back really fit.

"We were challenging each other and you didn't feel alone. You had that accountability through knowing the other brothers were doing it."

The Highlanders will open the new Super Rugby Aotearoa programme, hosting the Chiefs at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium on June 13.

Super Rugby 2020: Competition reset provides lifeline for struggling Highlanders