“Poison”: Highlanders reveal how All Blacks tore the club apart in 2013

  • A new Sky documentary screening on Tuesday at 7pm shows the history of Highlanders – warts and all
  • Aaron Smith reveals that he still feels “scarred” from a bitter 2013 season
  • Former No 8 Nasi Manu then faced coach Jamie Joseph to save a club

Fights in the postseason meeting. Broken trust between players and coaches. A feeling that some All Blacks imports were just “counting their money”: the Highlanders’ tumultuous 2013 season was finally discovered.

Highlanders quarterback Aaron Smith discusses the impact of 2013 season In a new documentary.

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Highlanders quarterback Aaron Smith discusses the impact of 2013 season In a new documentary.

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 have been discussing the club’s highs and lows since the formation of Super Rugby.

It turns out that the horrific season of 2013, when Joseph’s decision to recruit All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock, failed miserably, 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 hurt Smith explains that there was “poison” in the dressing room.

“We talked about championships before we even got to the finals,” Smith said. “But that doesn’t buy you a championship.

“… it was not built with hard work and faith and dedication and doing your job creates a test for others, or wanting to deal for your friend.

“Or they were [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?

Ma'a Nonu shakes hands with All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen while Brad Thorn watches following the Highlanders Sharks game in Dunedin in May 2013.

Hannah Johnston / Getty Images

Ma’a Nonu shakes hands with All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen while Brad Thorn watches following the Highlanders Sharks game in Dunedin in May 2013.

“It’s hard to say, but I’ve seen it.”

Smith also pointed to resentful games after the season ended when a bad feeling that was building up inside the squad exploded.

“There were fights,” Smith said. “You shouldn’t fight your teammates. That’s one sign that I knew there was poison. “

Manu’s role in rescuing the Highlanders from themselves also becomes clear. The iconic Highlanders No. 8 was injured in the first game of the season, and was therefore a short distance from the playing squad.

From that point of view, he could see the unfortunate building, and said that “double standards” began to creep in when the Highlanders’ All Blacks were not pulled up by the coaches for mistakes in the same way as younger players were.

Despite being raised to respect his elders, Manu – already with one eye on the 2014 season – confronted Joseph at the end of the campaign and told him how the players really felt, and how they were able to fix it.

At the end of that meeting, Joseph effectively offered Manu the fellowship, and the rest is history.

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 package.

The documentary also looks back to the beginnings of Super Rugby, when terms such as conditioning were foreign to most players.

The disappointment of the lost 1999 final is also covered, and interviews with Josh Kronfeld and Jeff Wilson show that the injury still remains.

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