2013 Season Preview: HIGHLANDERS
by Brendan Bradford –
The Otago Highlanders have flown out of the gates in each of the last two seasons and looked like genuine title contenders before going off the boil mid-year and finishing 8th in 2011 and 9th in 2012. Injury, inconsistency and straight bad luck contributed to the disappointing climaxes to both seasons but in 2013, after a concerted recruitment effort, the Dunedin based franchise seems to have the mixture of raw talent, depth, youth and experience that could convert a promising start into a successful year.
The side has lost some big names in Jimmy Cowan, James Haskell and Adam Thomson but can more than adequately cover for them with the likes of All Blacks Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, the ageless Brad Thorn and exciting new talents like Japanese halfback Fumiaki Tanaka and elusive back Buxton Popoali’i.
The side boasts a near All Blacks backline with Aaron Smith, Colin Slade, Tamati Ellison (when fit), Nonu, Ben Smith and Hosea Gear but as we saw with the Blues last season, a good team on paper doesn’t always equate to on-field results. Creating a cohesive unit from an abundance of individual brilliance can be challenging and Jamie Joseph’s charges will need to be more consistent this season as they handle the added pressure of public expectation.
With 12 test caps and four years at the Highlanders under his belt, 26-year-old utility back Ben Smith is one of the side’s leaders while versatile forward Jarrad Hoeata – who joined the franchise in 2011 but was ruled out of the start of last season through injury – is looking to build on his late season form that saw him earn a New Zealand Maori call-up. Hoeata can play in the second and back row and has won three test caps.
Rugby News chatted to both players as they prepared for another Super Rugby season.
You started with a bang last year but fell out of contention as the season wore on, a familiar trait at the Highlanders for a year or two now. How will you account for that this time around?
Jarrad Hoeata: “Yeah, the last couple of years we’ve had a really good team culture and really put the Highlanders back on the map but just fallen at the last hurdles. It’s something that the coaches and players have talked about and I think because we play such a physical style of game, it takes its toll week in week out, so just being a bit smarter about training and adding more depth will help us out.”
Ben Smith: “We know we want to be a championship team and really make sure that when it’s crunch time, we perform well, and we think we can do that. It’s gonna come down to the end of the season and just doing the little things right and making sure that we’re playing good footy.”
You’ve recruited very well over the off-season, what’s it been like with those new guys coming in?
BS: “It’s really exciting to have Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu here. Those guys have a lot of experience and it’s just really exciting to have them down in our environment. We’ve been building over the last couple of years but we probably haven’t finished the season as we would’ve liked but with those guys coming in, we’re pretty excited about this year.”
JH: “It’s been good. They’re all highly professional so they’ve come back into the squad pretty seamlessly. Guys like Hosea and Tamati – even though he’s injured – have been great. Then guys like ‘Thorny’, Woodcock and Nonu adding their experience has been really beneficial to our team.”
We saw with the Blues last year that big names on paper don’t always translate into results. Is that something you’ve addressed?
JH: “Definitely. On paper, we’ve got more than we’ve had in the last couple of years but like you said, if you’re not playing well, that doesn’t mean jack really. We’ve still gotta work our asses off like we have over the last couple of years, and hopefully the new talent that has come in can finish off the second part of the season where we’ve dropped off in the past.”
BS: “We’ve identified that we’re going to need to work pretty hard as a team and that it’s going to come down to the 22 that are out there on the day. We’re just making sure that we bond and connect well because as you said, you can have all the players in the world, but it’s crucial to ensure you play as a team.”
Injuries have unfortunately been a big part of the Highlanders season over the past year or two as well. Do you feel you’ve got the depth to cover for that this year?
BS: “We think we have, we’ve got a good squad. There’s a lot of competition for spots which is going to make us play better because we’re all going to push each other and make sure we’re doing the best for the team. The depth that creates is always going to be there now.”
How has preseason gone so far?
JH: “Yeah, really tough but it’s been good. We’ve had a few trials and it was good just to have a hit out as a squad and get some game time under the belt.”
BS: “It’s been good, the boys have been working hard for the last couple of weeks and months, and we’ve been making progress and it’s looking good.”
You missed the start of last season through injury Jarrad, are you fully fit this time around?
JH: “Yeah I am, I was lacking a bit of confidence and strength last year with trying to get back as quick as possible, but I had a good season with Taranaki (in New
Zealand’s provincial ITM Cup), and I’ve had a good preseason so I’m ready to hit the season hard.”
I heard you guys had a pretty interesting preseason training camp?
JH: “Yeah, we trekked about eight hours into Central Otago to the middle of nowhere, pretty much. A few of the hunters take their guns up and what not and we split into groups and go fishing and stuff. It’s quite a good trip just by ourselves for a couple of days. A lot of us are from out of Dunedin, so to come here and see the beautiful countryside and see everyone we represent is really good.”
The new Forsyth Barr indoor stadium the Highlanders play at looks pretty awesome. It must be daunting for visiting sides playing there with all the Uni students packing it out and making plenty of noise?
JH: “I’ve played in a fair few stadiums all around the world but this is definitely the best in my opinion. Especially with all the students, who are based in North Dunedin where the stadium is, pack out one of the ends we call ‘The Zoo’ and make it a sort of party atmosphere and really daunting for other teams.”
BS: “It’s a great place to have as your home ground. It’s just an awesome stadium and the Highlanders fans are so passionate about rugby and when they get right in behind you it can be quite loud in there. With the roof, the noise gets trapped and at times it’s quite hard to hear but you can really feel them getting behind you when you’re playing. It’s just a great place to play at.”
Do you think the month long June test window affected the Highlanders last year?
JH: “I had a bit of an injury for the first half of the season, so I was using that window to really get myself right and back playing. I’m not sure if we can blame that, we fell away a little after it but I’m not sure we can use it as an excuse because every other team had to go through it too.”
BS: “We came back from that period and we probably didn’t play as well as we would’ve liked to, but I’m not sure if the break had anything to do with our momentum shifting.”
The New Zealand conference will be hotly contested this season, who do you see as your main rivals?
JH: “It’s always tough and if you don’t turn up on your game, you lose – simple as that. But I’d say the Chiefs, they won last year and have to be rated number one I guess.”
BS: “It’s hard to say really. Every team is going to be tough in their own right. Obviously the Chiefs are the defending champions and they’ve got a good squad and a good work ethic, so they’ll always be tough to beat. You’ve got the Crusaders who are a quality team that has performed really well over the past few years. You could almost name every team, really. The Hurricanes were really dangerous at times last year, and they proved a lot of people wrong. Once the new coaching staff at the Blues gets in, they’re going to be dangerous too. The New Zealand conference is going to be pretty tough.”
How about the across the competition generally – who do you like the look of in Australia and South Africa?
JH: “I haven’t seen much of what’s going on really, but the usual suspects will be up there. I think the Stormers and Bulls in South Africa and in Aussie, the Waratahs will be a threat and the Reds will bounce back again. I haven’t heard too much about the Brumbies but they’re always a threat as well.”
BS: “Obviously the South African teams are really tough over there. You’ve got your Stormers who always play pretty well and the Sharks are always there or thereabouts and the Bulls are the same. In the Aussie conference, I think the Brumbies are an up-and-coming team who were probably unlucky not to make the playoffs. The Reds won a couple of years ago so they’re dangerous too. We probably can’t tell until the first few games of the season kick off as to who’s doing what.”