Wheeler seizes opportunity

No. 6 Harlequins Joe Wheeler.
No. 6 Harlequins Joe Wheeler.

Tasman Makos forward Joe Wheeler has joined the Highlanders for next year's Super Rugby campaign.

Wheeler has signed a two-year contract, leaving the Crusaders after three injury-interrupted seasons.

The 23-year-old former Marlborough Boys' College first XV forward played just five matches for the Crusaders, with serious shoulder and back injuries limiting his opportunities. As a consequence other players, including current All Blacks lock Luke Romano, leap-frogged him in the selection pecking order.

Leaving the Crusaders was sad, the big Harlequins forward said, but it's an opportunity too good to miss. "It's exciting news. It's been in the pipeline since the end of the Super Rugby season. I was looking for a bit more opportunity and thankfully the Highlanders came knocking and I signed with them."

Coming back into form after his latest injury and back surgery, which ruled him out for most of this Super season, he played well against Taranaki in Saturday's Ranfurly Shield thriller, but said he's still got plenty of improving to do as he gets more game time under his belt.

Unfortunately, he said, things didn't work out how he would have liked at the Crusaders.

"It's obviously sad to say goodbye to the Crusaders but it basically came down to opportunity and the last two years have been pretty tough with injuries and I haven't had a chance to get on the field.

"There's probably been a couple of guys who have overtaken me in the rankings and I thought it was time to move on.

"I dreamed of being a Crusader since I was a little kid but you can't help injuries. It's just the way the professional game is now and [taking the best opportunities] is something you have to do.

"Jamie [Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph] gave me a call and asked me what my plans were for next year and I let him know I was off contract."

Wheeler said the Crusaders were still interested in retaining him and the injuries over the last two years were frustrating to both parties, but with Otago having just three contracted locks at present, including him, the opportunity was obviously there to move and get more game time.

Joseph said he's delighted to have Wheeler on board for next season and sees him primarily as a lock, but someone also able to play well at No 8 and blindside flanker, the latter position being the one he's playing at for the Makos.

Joseph said: "I'm looking forward to working with him. He's always been a player I've watched from afar and he didn't get a lot of opportunities at the Crusaders. He's a skilful lock a good lineout forward and at kickoffs.

"I guess the feeling is he sees an opportunity in Dunedin and we are delighted to have him."

Wheeler could be joined by his former Crusaders and Makos team-mate, prop Ben Franks, after Franks recently said he wanted to leave the Crusaders to get more game time in his favoured position.

Joseph has already revamped his assistant coaching and management lineup with Makos coach Kieran Keane, Simon Culhane and Leicester Rutledge let go in place of Jon Preston, Scott McLeod and Graham Purvis for the 2013 campaign.

The Nelson Mail