Highlanders lineup needs to fire

DOWNCAST: The look on the Highlanders players' faces says it all after their 34-33 loss to the Reds on Friday.
DOWNCAST: The look on the Highlanders players' faces says it all after their 34-33 loss to the Reds on Friday.

The time has come for the Highlanders to get radical - but they won't.

The only winless team in the competition, rooted to the bottom of the Super Rugby ladder, there is no shortage of frustration in Camp Highlander.

As they eye a trip to Eden Park and a game against the Blues, a fixture that Dunedin-based rugby teams traditionally struggle with, the Highlanders will be taking a hard look at themselves, but whether that will serve any purpose is up for debate.

Some hard calls need to be made, and they need to be made soon if this alarming slide is going to be stopped.

With an extensive injury list appended to the bottom of the email that carries the names of the team each week, you might wonder whether Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has any room to move.

But he does.

For a start, there must be serious pressure coming on his skipper, Andrew Hore, to retain his place in the starting lineup.

Dropping Hore might seem like lunacy but the truth is his input on the field this season has been limited. He started late after serving out a suspension from the All Black tour, popped a rib cartilage at the start of the game against the Chiefs and got sinbinned in the one-point loss to the Reds last weekend.

Perhaps there was a medical reason that Hore had to start against the Reds in what was a surprisingly early return to the fray after that rib injury.

He does deserve credit for wanting to lead his team out of its predicament, but only if that rib injury is not blunting his effectiveness to the point where another option would be better.

Which is what we have at the moment in the form of Otago hooker Liam Coltman.

Some Otago rugby followers are already talking up the bearded front-rower as a future All Black, and his form starting against the Chiefs was persuasive.

There also seems to be no need to persevere with Tony Woodcock if he's going to be playing on only one leg.

The scrum never went better than when Chris King and Ma'afu Fia were bookending it, and Jamie Mackintosh deserves a chance to play for his season.

Mose Tuiali'i, at 32, is the latest player to be called home from Japan to join the Highlanders, following in the footsteps of Tamati Ellison, Brad Thorn, Jake Paringatai and Neil Brew, and, if he's anything like the former Blues player who played nine games for the All Blacks, then he should add some value.

Nasi Manu is rated little chance of recovering from a foot injury this season.

The Highlanders loose forwards have been heavily criticised, including by former franchise skipper and flanker Taine Randell, but, before the arrival of Tuiali'i, there was little Joseph could have done.

Paringatai didn't look up to it in Invercargill, while Elliot Dixon has done lots of good things but still isn't the finished article.

John Hardie has been running into, and through, a brick wall, but Jarrad Hoeata belongs in the second row and not on the side of the scrum and TJ Ioane did enough against the Reds to grab the No 6 jersey.

Despite his Rugby Park horror show, Lima Sopoaga needs to come back ahead of Colin Slade and something needs to happen at centre until Ellison can make an early return.

After shoulder surgery initially ruled him out for much of the season, he could now be back in the next couple of weeks, but why not give Hosea Gear a crack in the meantime?

He's been the Highlanders' most dangerous runner in recent weeks, but for a less conservative move Ben Smith could move forward and Buxton Popoali'i, who was surprisingly effective on the wing against the Reds, could start at fullback.

Smith operates better at fullback and Popoali'i operates in the area between disaster and dynamism, but the Highlanders are well beyond the place where they can afford to play it safe.

And yet that's exactly where Joseph will continue to play it.

"You've got to keep cracking on," Joseph said after the loss to the Reds.

"The fact that it's one or two points each weekend is the most frustrating for the team. If it's one or two points it's one or two things, generally. It was an overthrow, it was a knock-on, it was something like that - and generally the review to the game is based around that."

But it's more than that. This Highlanders team is not the counter-rucking, wire-in-the-blood side it had been for the past two years.

They've desperately missed Adam Thomson and Ellison, but they are also missing something else.

Even an eternal optimist would be hard-pressed to believe they are going to find it at Eden Park.

The Southland Times