The good news for the Highlanders is that their entire coaching staff now consists of former All Black rugby players. With head coach Jamie Joseph signing on for two more years and scrum guru Kees Meeuws already there, the addition of the two new assistant coaches, Jon Preston and Scott McLeod, will afford them a lot of expertise.
The decisions of ex-Blues Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock to join the Highlanders’ campaign might turn out to be game changing as they will offer some much needed guidance amongst the forwards and backs, or it could backfire – in my opinion neither really stood out during the previous season of Super Rugby.
A trooper that is expected to add value to the team is former World Cup winning All Black Brad Thorn. The big lock has returned from Japan and the anticipation is that his presence alone will lift the work rate of everyone around him.
Speaking of Japan, history will be made when halfback Fumiaki Tanaka takes the field to become the first Japanese player to participate in the Super Rugby Competition. It is said that Jamie Joseph feels he is a perfect fit for the team, but one can only wonder how big a role he will actually play with Aaron Smith there.
We won’t dwell on the players that left, but the fact that Adam Thomson hasn’t been contracted by any franchise is very disappointing to me. The relentless loose forward was one of 2012’s star performers and definitely the best of the Highlanders. They sure look a bit lean around the fringes without him.
The bad news is that they’ve already been hit by the injury bug. Doug Tietjens also fell victim to a game of touchies and ruptured his Achilles tendon; he’ll most likely miss the entire season. Adding to the list of casualties are the injuries to gifted midfielder Tamati Ellison and new boy on the block, Declan O’Donnell, recently poached from the Chiefs; both of them will probably be out for most of the season as they’ve undergone shoulder surgery.
At this stage, the backline is still looking rather good and I’m only wondering which combinations the coach will use. Joseph is lucky to have in-form players like Shaun Treeby and Phil Burleigh to cover Ellison’s absence, and fortunately, so far no harm has come to the reliable Hosea Gear.
The Highlanders will, however, have to make do without the service of preferred hooker Andrew Hore in their opener against defending champions the Chiefs. Hore was found guilty of striking Bradley Davis in a match between the All Blacks and Wales. The suspension was for 5 weeks and only ends on 24 February, two days after their campaign kicks off.
Word from the camp is that their goal this year is to take the team to the Super Rugby Final and, as a result of the changes they’ve made, it seems that the consensus is that the Highlanders are one of the favorites to win the 2013 title.
I, on the other hand, am not as confident that they’ll be that successful. Call it a sixth sense or whatever, but my gut says they’re gonna struggle a bit. Probably just enough to give the opposition the upper hand more often than not.
My prediction for the Highlanders is a 10th place finish overall.
What do you think? Will I be right on the money or eating my words?
by Jackie Smit