Expectations of Highlanders well grounded

MOVING SOUTH: Ma'a Nonu has signed with the Highlanders.
MOVING SOUTH: Ma'a Nonu has signed with the Highlanders.

If the Highlanders can play next year with the same aggression - and get the same bounce of the ball - they have had during the offseason, it should be one heck of a campaign.

A lineup that features current or recent All Blacks Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Brad Thorn, Jarrad Hoeata, Aaron Smith, Colin Slade, Hosea Gear, Ma'a Nonu, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith deserves respect.

It's a far cry from the bleak landscape the Highlanders existed on three years ago.

Jimmy Cowan and Tom Donnelly were the team's only All Blacks, the team played in front of paltry crowds at a windswept Carisbrook and they couldn't buy a trick, losing so many games in the final minutes that you didn't have to be a romantic to imagine a curse was hanging over south Dunedin.

The franchise was also in desperate financial straits, placed under the direct financial control of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

The Highlanders were a team that no-one wanted to play for and no-one wanted to watch.

That's the opposite of what a professional sporting franchise should be about.

Despite not yet turning themselves into a playoffs team, the Highlanders have managed to turn the ship around just as it appeared destined to run aground.

And while there's always a lot of hard work that needs to go into salvaging something as badly damaged as the Highlanders were, there's been an even healthier slice of luck.

Like the fact that Jamie Joseph became available at a time the Highlanders were scouting around for a coach.

Or that the Hurricanes' implosion would eventually provide the Highlanders with Hore and Nonu, both at bargain prices.

Hore's arrival has helped paved the way for his good mate Woodcock next season, while Nonu virtually fell into the Highlanders lap.

The Highlanders have been fortunate to make use of a new stadium, despite the fact their recent history helped add to the sense of pessimism among many Dunedin ratepayers, which threatened to derail it.

Two concerns the Highlanders had this season - the scrum and scoring tries - will be eased with Thorn and Woodcock in the engine room and the arrival of an X-factor player such as the dreadlocked Nonu.

Those who still recall the angst that surrounded the financial meltdown suffered by Rugby Southland under Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark's watch might be relieved to know the NZRU watches the Dunedin franchise's accounts more closely than previous Rugby Southland boards.

At a time when Otago and Southland rugby is struggling, the Highlanders have been allowed to spend about $500,000 more on players than even a couple of years ago.

By 2015 all five franchise will be on an equal footing when it comes to how much they can spend on their roster.

That has been a leg up for the likes of the Chiefs and Highlanders, but has eroded the traditional (and I'm talking long-term here) financial dominance of the Blues and Hurricanes with their significant commercial advantages.

You might wonder where this leaves local players.

Perhaps Southland's John Hardie and Otago's Ben Smith will be the only local products capable of commanding a starting spot with the Highlanders next season.

Clark doesn't have much time for the question, and it may be churlish to be bringing it up when for years we've been complaining about the Highlanders' inability to attract quality players south.

A pathway still remains for players from Southland, Otago and North Otago to play Super Rugby in their own area.

And what better way to learn than to get alongside a consummate professional like Thorn, arguably the "most-winningest" (Clark's term) player in football?

As a rugby follower, do you care that a Highlanders team has little local influence, as long as it's successful?

The truth is that, with central contracting, Southland players have five teams they can play for. Robbie Robinson will be a Chief again next year and Marty McKenzie will play for the Blues.

So is the NPC about parochialism and Super Rugby about winning?

Clark says that one of the issues that came out of the end-of-season review was that expectations had been set too low.

With the roster in place for next season, those expectations should be based around winning a title.

The Southland Times