If you thought you saw Ethan de Groot or Folau Fakatava picking up milk in the supermarket this week, you might have been right.
The Highlanders Regional Roadshow, with support from Alexandra business Breen Construction, began this week with open training sessions around the region from Wanaka to Ranfurly.
Going completely old-school on their summer roadie the team were staying at the Alexandra Holiday Park and training at Pioneer Park every morning. In the afternoons they headed to public training sessions and events in other towns.
Alexandra gym owner Jayden Spence said he was contacted late last year about the possibility of using his newly opened Soul Fitness gym — across the road from the park — for team training.
Spence, who played 49 games for Otago and was part of the Highlanders wider training squad, was happy to accommodate the team. He retired from rugby on medical advice in 2018 while in his second year of a two-year deal with French club Bordeaux.
At Monday’s open training event, players engaged in a number of drills under the merciless Otago sun before taking a quick dip in Lake Wanaka.
As players made their way back to the clubrooms, they were swarmed by more than 100 young fans eager to get the autographs of their favourite players.
Highlanders defence coach Dave Dillon said “Southern inspiration” was key for the team, and it was important for them to know who they were representing when they put on the jersey.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces. We have a lot of young guys.
“Getting away from camp is quite good; getting away from the base there in Dunedin.”
Dillon added it was equally important the fans had a chance to engage with the players.
“Seeing us training, seeing us putting in that work and then, post that, the boys getting around and having those chats.
“A lot of boys will remember when they were young and how important that interaction is.”
Highlanders loose forward Sean Withy counted himself among those who had been inspired by team visits growing up.
“I was born in Southland, in the countryside, so it was always a big day when the Stags or the Highlanders would come down.”
Withy said the team were ready to test their might against Moana Pasifika in tomorrow’s first preseason match after a long summer of training.
“I think everyone’s looking forward to having a hitout against some other people and taking some steam out.
“Everyone’s looking forward to it and putting their best foot forward.”
The Highlanders Regional Roadshow would finish up today in Alexandra with an open captain’s run at 10.45am and a community event with the players at 3.30pm.
Tomorrow they take on Moana Pasifika at the Queenstown Event Centre, in Frankton, at 6pm.