Young Highlanders' hunger inspires old guard

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 30/04/2014
Richard Buckman
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
NEW LIFE: Richard Buckland, left, contests a loose ball with the Blues' Benji Marshall.

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Hungry young players are leading the charge for the Highlanders.

And their appetite for the game is rubbing off on the older players, former Highlanders assistant coach and All Black first five-eighth Simon Culhane says.

"The young players have got the old guys keen and hungry, which is coming through on the field," Culhane said.

Halfway through the 2014 Super Rugby season, the Highlanders have almost matched their points tally for the entire 2013 season, in which they finished 14th.

Last year was a season of expectation after the signing of big-name All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore. It ended with the team finishing the season second-bottom.

When the 2014 squad was named, the signed big names were gone.

But Aaron Smith, ben Smith and Brad Thorn remained, they were the standout names on a roster that left many Highlanders fans corking their expectations for the season ahead.

However, a new breed of Highlanders is coming through.

If the Highlanders can get a result against the bottom-placed Stormers in Cape Town on Sunday morning, they will be in a position to make a charge for the playoffs.

Culhane, who was an assistant coach at the Highlanders in 2011 and 2012, said the new crop were delivering better performances than the big names put together last year.

"Last season some players didn't play to their potential for the side," he said.

"Knowing Jamie [Joseph] pretty well, he would have assessed that the older guys weren't leaving it all out on the field for the team and, with an eye to the future, chose to look to younger players who would be hungrier."

It was working, Culhane said.

"The 9 and 10 combination - Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga - is functioning really well and if you look at any side going well on a rugby field, that combination has to be effective and drive the side around the park," Culhane said.

Sopoaga has been pretty solid and Smith was back in All Black form, he said.

"Everyone is talking about Malakai Fekitoa," Culhane said.

"He has been a revelation and Highlanders fans are pretty excited when he touches the ball."

Also impressing Culhane is wing Richard Buckman - or, as he called him, the Honey Badger from the South - comparing him with Western Force wing Nick Cummins.

"Buckman is one guy who has really played above his weight. He is just a gutsy player who gets the absolute best out of his abilities and puts it out on the field. He is a pretty tough and strong individual.

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A relatively unknown front row, with veteran Chris King leading the way, was holding its own up front against some formidable opponents, Culhane said. "Chris [King] is a quality individual who is laying the platform for the other forwards to follow," he said.

Joe Wheeler and Shane Christie have also stood up.

"Joe is in his second season with the Highlanders franchise and is really coming into his own under Jamie Joseph," he said.

"He is one of those young and hungry players and Jamie's coaching style has been really good for him."

The Highlanders were playing good rugby but Joseph and his side would not be getting ahead of themselves, Culhane said.

He was part of the coaching staff when the 2011 Highlanders put themselves into semifinals contention after a great start to the campaign before slumping at the end of the year to finish eighth on the table.

"Jamie [Joseph] won't be getting carried away. We all know how it can change pretty quickly but the platform is there," Culhane said.

If there was a question mark hanging over the side, it was whether the Highlanders had enough depth, he said.

A relatively injury-free run had helped the Highlanders, and the coaching staff were doing a good job balancing the time players were spending on the park, he said.

"There is always a risk your top players don't get a rest when you want to win.

"But it looks like they have it right at the moment and there is also a fair amount of competition for spots, which is healthy."

neil.ratley@stl.co.nz

- Southland

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