Super Rugby: Improved Depth Will Make Highlanders Contenders in 2012

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIJanuary 21, 2012

Siale Piutau, Jason Rutledge and Ben Smith celebrate a try during the Highlanders' 2011 Super Rugby campaign.
Siale Piutau, Jason Rutledge and Ben Smith celebrate a try during the Highlanders' 2011 Super Rugby campaign.Hannah Johnston/Getty Images

Depth is not a word that has been associated with the Highlanders for quite some time.

In fact it's been a rather frustrating time for those in the south of New Zealand, who have been left constantly scratching their heads at the failures of their once-proud team.

Names like Jeff Wilson, Josh Kronfeld and Taine Randall were replaced by journeymen who struggled to foot it with the best in the competition. 

But major changes after a failed campaign in 2010 saw a new coach, Jamie Joseph, recruited to turn the franchise around. Joseph's efforts were seen immediately in 2011 as the team delivered their best performance in years.

The future now looks bright for the Highlanders, and 2012 may be the year that sees them finally reclaim their place amongst the top teams of the competition.  

However, they still have plenty to prove, as many pundits still rate them lowly. Even the TAB have them listed as only the fourth-best New Zealand team and a fair way off the Chiefs, who they have rated as their third team.

One must ask themselves if this is really a true reflection of the team's ability, or a reflection of their recent performances.

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The first thing to remember is that this is a very different team from the one that has taken the field in recent years.

Their main problem in 2011 came from a lack of depth in certain positions. However, they have gone some way to fixing this and have a strong squad across all areas.

Andrew Hore will return to his roots with the Highlanders in 2012.
Andrew Hore will return to his roots with the Highlanders in 2012.Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

They are traditionally strong up front, and with a starting front row of Jamie Mackintosh, Andrew Hore and Chris King, this will once again be the case in 2012.

Hore was a big signing and will provide valuable experience to the Highlanders upon his return home from the Hurricanes, where he has played since leaving his native Otago over a decade ago. The three all play a similar no-nonsense, get-the-job-done type game, typical of Highlanders front rows over the years.

Hore's backup comes in Jason Rutledge, a very good player in his own right who has become something of a folk hero to the fans down south. His work rate is high and he plays like a fourth loose forward.

Prop may be a position lacking some depth, but the improving Bronson Murray will back up the starters, while newcomer Ma'afu Fia waits in the wings.

They are strong in the locks with three genuine starting options in Josh Bekhuis, Callum Retallick and Jarrad Hoeata. Bekhuis likely will start, as will Hoeata once he returns from injury. Both have big futures and it wouldn't be a stretch to say either could feature in a black jersey this year.

Hoeata provides the grunt and is to the Highlanders what Jerome Kaino is to the Blues and All Blacks. All three are good lineout options.

The loose forwards provide plenty of good players, meaning the hardest choice to make is who to leave out rather than who to pick, something the Highlanders haven't had the luxury of for many years.

Adam Thomson was the Highlanders' best player in 2011 and will be a certainty to start in 2012.
Adam Thomson was the Highlanders' best player in 2011 and will be a certainty to start in 2012.Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images

Adam Thomson will definitely start in some form; at which position will depend on who else is chosen. Nasi Manu will almost certainly be the No. 8 after an excellent 2011, which saw him develop into a strong ball-running threat.

John Hardie and English import James Haskell likely will contest the last starting spot. Hardie is one of the best tacklers around, while Haskell has international credentials, meaning either would make a good choice. Along with this there are plenty of youngsters waiting in the wings should they be required.

The outcome of this forward pack should be a strong scrum, a good lineout with plenty of options and a strong presence around the park. They are renowned for their ferocious, hard style of play, and boast the players to continue this tradition.

It will also allow their backs to get plenty of good ball to work with. And in stark contrast to the past eight years, it is a lethal back line that will take the field in 2012.

Jimmy Cowan retains his position at halfback, where he will organise the back line. Cowan brings a very good kicking game and defensively is the best of the New Zealand halfbacks.

He is backed up by Aaron Smith, a youngster who debuted last year and proved to be a good runner while also possessing a very crisp pass, making him a good option in the last 30 minutes of a game.

Outside these two they boast 2011 All Black Colin Slade, who will want to add a greater contribution after having his 2011 season interrupted by injuries to the jaw and groin. Slade is a good runner and distributes well, while also possessing a reasonable kicking game.

The devastating Hosea Gear will ply his trade with the Highlanders this year.
The devastating Hosea Gear will ply his trade with the Highlanders this year.Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Many have knocked his ability due to his performances at the Rugby World Cup, but don't sleep on Slade; he has shown himself to be a very good player at the Super Rugby level and was carrying an injury at the tournament.

Beneath him is Lima Sopoaga, who enters his second year with the franchise and will be of great value after making enormous strides in 2011. They also have former Otago player Chris Noakes, who gets a chance after years of good performances at the provincial level.

In the midfield they retain the 2011 combination of Shaun Treeby and Kendrick Lynn, while former All Black Tamati Ellison returns to New Zealand and will also be in the mix.

Treeby has the ability to get the team on the front foot, while Lynn will play a more intelligent role, looking to set up his outsides.

Ellison also has the ability to play in the outside backs, and upon leaving New Zealand was one of the best prospects in the country, so will undoubtedly find his way into the starting team in some form.

Their back three is the best they've had since the days of Jeff Wilson, with a combination of Hosea Gear, Kade Poki and Ben Smith likely to start.

Smith is a skillful player who has a knack of finding gaps in defences, while Gear and Poki are both strong runners who make a habit of finding the line.

They have a number of youngsters backing these three up in Siale Piutau, Kurt Baker and Telusa Veainu, all of whom have a lot of potential. Piutau in particular stood out in 2011. 

This makes up a very dangerous back line which will be very hard to contain. They have a number of young players returning for their second season, all of whom will be that much better for the experience.

To go with this they have the likes of Gear and Ellison entering the fold, who will also provide valuable experience.

Written like this, it looks like a top team. And they might well be.

But one final thing to remember is that games aren't played on paper, a reality which has been seen time and time again in Super Rugby.

However, if last year's efforts are anything to go by, you can be assured that Jamie Joseph will have this team well-drilled, fit, committed and playing ruthless rugby that has become synonymous with the south.

Combine this with the team on paper and it's not hard to see the Highlanders up there with the top teams in Super Rugby for 2012.

Whether they will be or not will only be seen in time.


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