John Hardie set to stake his Super Rugby claim
Southland's John Hardie is on a mission to make the Highlanders openside flanker's jersey his own during next year's Super Rugby competition.
Hardie has struggled for regular starting opportunities with the Highlanders since making his Super Rugby debut in 2010 but with first choice No7 Alando Soakai now plying his trade in Japan, there is a massive chance for the 23-year-old to step up into the role.
In this year's NPC, Hardie was one of the most outstanding players in the competition for an underperforming Stags side, and admitted he had spoken to Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph about the need to transfer that kind of form over to Super Rugby.
Hardie is likely to fight it out with Manawatu recruit Doug Tietjens for the Highlanders' openside starting berth next season, but with All Black Adam Thomson and English international James Haskell capable of playing all three loose forward positions, Hardie knows he has to step up and take advantage of any chances he gets.
"It's a big one for me, because I've had two years in the waiting now. I haven't really got regular starting time. It's a big year for me to stamp my mark on Super 15 Rugby and I'm looking forward to it."
Hardie was delighted with the way he had performed for Southland in the NPC and attributed a more professional approach to his rugby, both on and off the field, as the catalyst for his fine play.
"I'm 23 now. I thought `It's time to really knuckle down with my rugby'. I thought that played a big part in that. I'm looking to push on from that (with the Highlanders)."
Hardie provided good spark off the bench for the Highlanders earlier this season and many people felt he should have gained more starts late in their campaign.
He said it was tough to push Soakai out of the starting 15 when he was playing such consistent rugby and believed he had served his apprenticeship and now it was time to make an impact.
"I was pushing for that spot, but Soaks was playing some good rugby, I couldn't really stop that. All I could do was push my position. I was happy I got a couple of starts, but was disappointed the times I didn't get a start. It's really my time to cement that position."
Hardie said it had taken time to adjust to the intensity level of Super Rugby, but acknowledged he was becoming more comfortable against the Australian and South African style of play and wanted to be dominant at the breakdown next season.
"It's a big jump in how fast it is (from NPC). The physicality is probably the same, apart from the South African teams, who bring quite a strong physical presence.
"One of the big ones for me is the breakdown area and being strong in there, which is one of my work on's this year. I want to carry that NPC form on."
Hardie suffered a thumb injury midway though the NPC, but soldiered on through the pain and had an operation once the season had finished.
He was able to carry out only light training exercises for six to nine weeks, but has almost made a full recovery and was now feeling close to 100 per cent.
The Highlanders have been sweating it out over the past couple of weeks as they prepare for next year's Super competition. Hardie said training sessions had been varied with the team undertaking such tasks as strong man activities, triathlons, speed training around the Botanical Gardens, and even the old favourite school lunchtime game of bullrush.
This year, the Highlanders made a dream start to their campaign, winning seven of their opening nine games, but fell away in the latter stages of the season as injuries and a lack of depth in key positions began to take their toll.
They have assembled a classy squad for next season and with All Black flyer Hosea Gear and the versatile Tamati Ellison joining their ranks for 2012, appear to have much more firepower in the backline.
Hardie said the side were setting their goals high for next season and believed there was no reason why they could not be a top six team and challenge for the title. "We've got nine All Blacks this year and a couple of internationals. We've got a lot more depth and we've got game breakers now. We can't really call ourselves battlers anymore. We're a title hope."