Cool head … Highlanders five-eighth Mike Delany played a starring role in his side's win over the Blues. Photo: Getty Images
WHAT is it about No.10s and their feel-good stories in New Zealand rugby? Last year it was Stephen Donald riding to the rescue of the All Blacks, now it's Mike Delany going "hi-ho Highlanders, here I come''.
Not that he was a lone ranger in Friday night's bounce-back, and somewhat fortuitous, 30-27 victory over the Blues under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium, but the 29-year-old emergency recruit certainly played a prominent part.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph had hatched a plan a few weeks back to solve his five-eighth crisis by bringing Delany - a nine-game Highlander in 2008 - back from Japan where he has been plying his trade for the Panasonic Wild Knights.
Not that the rescue mission was all smooth sailing. It took a short conversation for it to be agreed, a frantic fortnight to tuck away all the paperwork and 80 scintillating minutes for it to be revealed as a glorious success.
Delany slotted seven of his nine shots at goal and provided a cut and thrust in the No.10 jersey that had the Highlanders backs looking as threatening as they've been all season. Given as he was a relative stranger to most of his team it was a promising return, to say the least.
Joseph confirmed player and coach had found mutual ground easily, but it was insurance (and a lingering shoulder injury) that spun out a fortnight-long delay.
"He had a marvellous game," Joseph said. "He's a player we wanted to bring to the Highlanders when I first came down here, but he wanted to go to Japan, as players do. For him to come back and play for us has been a godsend given we've got Lima [Sopoaga] and Colin [Slade] out."
Sometimes the good things in life are worth waiting for. And Delany, who's contracted to return to Japan after this fill-in stint, would appear to be one of them. The single-test All Black stamped his class all over a game that was in the balance until the final minutes, with the hapless Blues turning down several kickable penalties to press for the victory.
Continuing a theme for their season, Pat Lam's men came up short. Delany played a seriously important part in that. His classy no-look pass was the flash-point for the opening try to Shaun Treeby and his ambition and adventure breathed much-needed life into the home back line. "He hasn't played with us and had to take in a lot of information, game plans, new guys and then gel into the position. I thought he might struggle with all that but he was outstanding," Joseph said.
In a pretty committed showing from both sides, it may have been the lure of the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy that got the Highlanders over the hump. They haven't held it since 2006 and a pre-game speech from the late Hunter's son-in-law, ex-Highlander Kelvin Middleton, stoked a few passions. "Sentimental reasons are not going to win matches but in tight games it seems to lift you," said Joseph, rapt to honour a coach he admired.
The Highlanders coach is nothing if not a realist. He understands his team's sixth win from eight outings was in the balance right till the end and they head to South Africa for games against the improved Cheetahs and proven Sharks with their season still in a similar state of uncertainty. "It's going to be a big tour for us," Joseph said. "If we can come away with some good results then we're on our way."
The injury news was all positive too, with nothing fresh to report.
Joseph, meanwhile, felt the Blues produced a performance that should ease some of the criticism that's hung over them throughout an under-performing season. "Up front they were probably one of our toughest opponents to date," he said.