Highlanders hint at exciting season
Don't read too much into the Highlanders' 38-21 win over the Crusaders in Oamaru on Friday night, but the game did throw up some promising aspects.
Like the way Ma'a Nonu tore into his first game in a Highlanders jersey.
The All Black midfielder is obviously world-class, but as he referenced in The Southland Times last week, his past two Super Rugby seasons at the Hurricanes and Blues have been less than vintage.
Highlanders assistant coach Scott McLeod, a former All Black midfielder himself, said he was happy with the way Nonu presented.
"I think he should be reasonably happy with his first game in the blue and yellow - a little bit of rustiness in some of his lines and his timing but he did really well," McLeod said.
"He brought some enthusiasm and I'm sure he would have brought some confidence to the people around him."
John Hardie's ability to get through 50 minutes of rugby off the side of the scrum was also a relief for the Highlanders.
They struggled at the breakdown against the Chiefs in Taupo last week and were generally out of the game as a result.
Hardie offered them more of a presence there on Friday night and the Highlanders were making good decisions about when to attack the ball at the ruck.
It's no coincidence that the franchise's fortunes slipped after he suffered a foot injury last year, and it was a huge shame when he re-injured it playing a pre-season game for the Stags against Otago in Balclutha.
Quick ruck ball is the key for the Highlanders, with Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga electric on the fast break.
Sopoaga's progress has been severely hampered by injury at the Highlanders and we've only seen glimpses of what he's capable of.
He will get a golden opportunity over the next few weeks to turn potential into results before Colin Slade comes back into the selection mix.
Phil Burleigh looks to have banked the No 13 jersey with a tidy display in Oamaru.
First brought into the Highlanders a year ago as injury cover, Burleigh quickly proved how under-rated he had been and the Highlanders like him as a replacement for Tamati Ellison.
"He showed some nice touches at the right time. His vision and his communication and organisation is what we need out there," McLeod said.
Buxton Popoalii struggled in Taupo, but thrived in Oamaru after being a late addition to the starting XV.
He could have found himself well down the pecking order if things hadn't gone his way, but he scored a try and laid on another for Hosea Gear.
Gear now has two tries from as many games after battling to get across the line for the Highlanders last year, while Kade Poki also had some counter-attacking opportunities in a backline which is not short of weapons.
The forwards will need to tidy up their set piece, particularly the lineout, and there was some concern when Brad Thorn walked gingerly from the field in the second half.
However, it later proved to be a minor issue.
Since we often have a moan about All Blacks making slow starts to the season, it's worth noting that the likes of Nonu, Thorn, Gear and Crusaders lock Luke Romano all looked pretty good.
Good on the people of Oamaru, who mustered a 5000-strong crowd for Friday night's game.
It wasn't so long ago that that would have been considered a good Highlanders crowd at Carisbrook.
This was not a fearsome Crusaders lineup, however, and for that there needs to be a tinge of caution when looking ahead to the season.
The Highlanders head to Wanaka today to put the finishing touches on their pre-season campaign, culminating in a game against Sir John Kirwan's Blues team in Queenstown on Friday night.
"It will be as hard as what we've been at home at trainings. We don't want to let up on that," McLeod said.
Their opening act will be against the defending champion Chiefs under the roof in Dunedin on February 22, a game which is expected to be close to capacity.
- The Southland Times