Highlanders must make their own luck

BRAINS TRUST: Highlanders' head coach Jamie Joseph (centre) and his new assistant coaches Scott McLeod (left) and Jon Preston (right).
BRAINS TRUST: Highlanders' head coach Jamie Joseph (centre) and his new assistant coaches Scott McLeod (left) and Jon Preston (right).

The Highlanders have been sparking a fair bit of discussion locally in the buildup to this season.

Regardless of last night's result against the Chiefs - and don't forget the Chiefs lost their opening game last season, but still managed to go on and win the competition - there have been a lot of people asking whether this year's Highlanders team could be the real deal.

Could this be the year the Highlanders crack the playoffs for the first time in a decade?

The answer is a qualified yes.

Yes, but they'll need to keep their big-name players healthy and reasonably fresh. Jamie Joseph and Co will have to manage the considerable resources he has gathered around him during the past two seasons.

That's a better problem to have than the one which has faced him for the past two years, too much rugby for not enough talent. That drain on a core group of players saw the Highlanders start the 2011 and 2012 campaigns like Tarzan, and finish them like Jane.

And yes, but they'll need some luck.

No team can win a big professional competition without things going their way. Ask any winning coach, and if they are honest they will admit that, for all the hard work which went in, it would have counted for far less if the ball had not bounced the right way at a crucial point of the season.

Whether it was Thomas Jefferson or not, whoever said that "the harder you work, the luckier you get" was right, but good fortune can't be coached and it can't be counted on. A player's whole career can turn on one moment which owed as much to luck as to hours of practise, and the same can go for a coach.

Joseph's predecessor Glenn Moore was a luckless coach - how many games did the Highlanders lose by seven points or less during his tenure? - not necessarily a bad one.

But for all the talk of fit players and the bounce of the ball, all the talk of the marque players added to the roster during the summer, the Highlanders' campaign of 2013 will be shaded by a player who won't even be there.

Adam Thomson has become something of a forgotten man amongst the excitement of a fresh season, his end-of-season All Blacks tour blighted by a bizarre bit of footwork on Scotland's Alisdair Strokosh in Edinburgh, which eventually cost him a two-week ban after his case was reviewed after an initial one-week suspension was deemed too lenient.

Thomson has been - and this can't be overstated - the best thing about the Highlanders for at least the past two seasons.

He has played himself into the ground for a team which has had varying levels of success. Played out of position for the good of the team. Stayed in Dunedin when the Crusaders came calling. It's a little scary to think about what the Highlanders might have looked like without him.

His presence around the park will be missed.

Thomson is now off to Japan to play, after time in some sort of a weird limbo. He was linked with a late return to the Highlanders, who have a few concerns over their loose forwards, but it's now confirmed that will not be happening.

If the Highlanders continue on to a successful season without him, they will owe a debt of gratitude to Thomson.

The Southland Times