Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler has put the frustrations of 2013 behind him to be one of the franchise's best performers this season.
The 2m Tasman second-rower has become part of the furniture in the Highlanders pack after overcoming back surgery for a prolapsed disc while with the Crusaders in 2012.
"Getting that right took probably 18 months [as] I didn't quite have the strength in my right side that I used to. Trying to play Super 15, or footy in general, was that much tougher not having 100 per cent strength," Wheeler said.
"I managed to get by, but couldn't do what I wanted to do on the field. It's come right now thanks to a lot of hard work by the medical staff and the conditioning coach here, and at Tasman as well."
Wheeler, forced to play out of position at blindside due to injuries and with his body still recovering from surgery, copped some criticism in 2013 when his form inevitably dipped.
He accepts not all rugby's knocks happen on the field.
"It's just part of being a footy player - as it should be, you should be judged on your performances on the weekend.
"Everyone plays with niggles. Last year was one of those frustrating things. I wasn't making excuses and I wasn't happy with my form.
"I would be the first to admit that my play wasn't up to standard and I'm just thankful I've got another opportunity to prove myself to myself, and to the fans of the Highlanders and Tasman."
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said it's been pleasing to see Wheeler come full circle.
"I just think with Joe, he's had some consistent football, injury free, which has allowed him to build over the season. He's always had the potential and ability to play good football, but he's either been injured or hasn't been selected to get that consistency.
"I felt sorry for him last year because he was selected as a lock and ended up playing as a loose forward because of injuries. This year he's played every game at lock and looks very comfortable, he's become one of our better players."
Wheeler is no stranger to the south.
Despite calling Blenheim home for the past 15 years, before that his family lived in Invercargill while father, Mark Wheeler, worked as manager at Alliance Foods for four years.
Wheeler fondly remembers growing up in Otatara, going to the local primary school and starting his rugby career with the Pirates club.
"I loved every moment of it. Otatara was a great place, with a great school. I got amongst the Snow White dairy, as it was called."
Wheeler, who toured with the New Zealand Maori team at the end of last year, has signed on for another season with the Highlanders in 2015.
"I've really enjoyed Dunedin. Hopefully this year will continue to be successful and we can build on it again next year."
- The Southland Times
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