Are the Highlanders turning back the clock 14 years?

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The Historian     23 Mar 2012     Getty Images

That same season the Highlanders, with their spine consisting Otago players, made the top four of Super Rugby for the first time, and gave defending champions the Blues a fright before going down 37-31 in their first knockout appearance.

This achievement was quickly dulled by the remarkable exploits of the 1998 Otago team, where Randall and John Leslie led from up front, while out wide first five-eighth Tony Brown kicked a record 196 points while Brendan Laney racked up 15 tries, equalling a 14-year NPC record.

Not only was the Otago, and by association Highlanders, squad blessed with unyielding Southern forwards who continuously laid immovable platforms, but their try scoring potency was demonstrated by scoring no less than four half centuries in 11 outings during the 1998 NPC.

What was more remarkable is that New Zealand rugby was fiercely competitive at the time, with the 1998 NPC Final missing Auckland (who had won 10 of the then last 14 crowns) and abdicated 1997 champions Canterbury.

This strength was translated to the 1999 Super 12 season, where the Crusaders were to defend a Super Rugby championship for the first time, the Blues still boasted a star-studded squad, but few could ignore the potential of the Highlanders considering their form in the last 12 months – with a NPC title and Super Rugby semi-final appearance in one season.

Such promise was delivered upon quickly, with the Highlanders grinding down 1996 and 1997 Super Rugby champions the Blues 19-13, before they turned their attention to four straight South African matches.

The Bulls would visit Carisbrook and suffer the second heaviest defeat of the season, going down 65-23 in a spine-chilling performance from the Highlanders, scoring nine tries with Jeremy Stanley and Byron Kelleher recording doubles.

Six days later the Highlanders would thrash the Stormers 46-14, and then would head to the Republic.

A 29-28 win over the then named Cats in Bloemfontein handed the Highlanders a perfect four-from-four Super Rugby opening, a feat matched the following year in the 2000 Super 12 season, and again achieved by the 2012 vintage under Jamie Joseph and Jamie MacKintosh.

That record was not bettered, and the inflated scores against their previous opponents from South Africa was put into perspective when the Sharks, also semi-finalists from the previous season, romped home 32-8, to inflict the Highlanders first loss of the 1998 season, and their heaviest reverse of the campaign.

However this did little to halt the Highlanders momentum, who returned home to defeat the Chiefs in Rotorua before hosting the champion Crusaders, and sending their South Island rivals packing with a rousing 23-6 victory – their third win in their opening four fixtures against their opponents ‘up the road’.

Unfortunately for the Highlanders, the Crusaders would eventually have the last laugh, crashing the "Party at Tony Brown's House" to claim the second of their seven Super Rugby titles.

This week, in 2012 Investec Super Rugby, the Highlanders have the chance to create franchise history and make it a dream five-from-five start, but will need to negotiate the Brumbies first.

Of interest is that the Highlanders team of 1999 defeated the Brumbies 9-8 in Dunedin despite being outscored one-try-to-nil, which was the first time the men from Canberra had lost to the blue and gold.