Highlanders aggressive in Super off-season

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 19/10/2012
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JASON OXENHAM/Fairfax NZ
TURNING POINT: Signings such as Brad Thorn are making the Highlanders a growing force this upcoming Super 15 campaign.

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Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark isn't concerned if his franchise has bruised a few fingers with its aggressive work in the Super 15 player market.

The Highlanders confirmed yesterday they had secured World Cup-winning All Black lock Brad Thorn for next season to complete a week which also included the controversial Ma'a Nonu announcement and an offseason which has seen fellow All Black Tony Woodcock also opt to quit the Blues in favour of Jamie Joseph's quiet revolution in Dunedin.

Thorn, who has been playing for Fukuoka Sanix Blues in Japan's Top League, has actually been a Highlander for the best part of two weeks having committed himself to Joseph during the latter's visit to Japan.

The deal was signed last Friday, ironically at about the same time the Highlanders received a phonecall from Nonu's management advising them he didn't want to play for the Blues and was back on the market.

Having already handed their last marquee contract to Thorn, that meant the Highlanders were only able to offer Nonu a smaller amount than he should have commanded, and certainly less than he would have received at the Blues.

When a storm erupted as it emerged Nonu had reneged on a handshake deal with new Blues coach Sir John Kirwan, the Highlanders opted to keep the Thorn news to themselves until yesterday, Clark said.

"It's been an interesting week, that's for sure," he said.

Clark was unapologetic about snaffling the dreadlocked midfielder.

"When we went to bed last Thursday night we were pretty happy with our team and then by Friday night there was a chance Ma'a was coming so we were even happier. As I've said many, many times...you've got nothing until you've got ink and the bottom line is we all have players who have outs."

Clark said there was a healthy slice of luck in all three All Black signings the Highlanders have made in recent months.

Nonu became a player without a home once he'd decided he didn't want to play for the Blues and the New Zealand Rugby Union were obviously keen for him to stay in New Zealand, with talks reigniting with the Highlanders after being dormant for some time.

The fact Thorn was born in Mosgiel, had family still in the area and his father played for Otago had a genuine bearing on his decision, Clark said.

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The Highlanders only made an approach to Woodcock because the Blues had gone on the offensive, showing interest in Adam Thomson and Southland fullback Marty McKenzie, he said.

Alongside it all is the understanding players are moving to be part of what Joseph has to offer, and to play alongside other quality players.

The bad news is that Thomson has not re-signed with the Highlanders and is not part of their initial 28-man squad. His future appears to lie overseas.

Clark, who left Rugby Southland in the middle of a storm over the union's financial situation, said Thomson's likely departure, along with Jimmy Cowan, and the fact Nonu had accepted a smaller salary, were factors in the Highlanders spending the way they had.

"Every contract we have is signed off by (the NZRU) because it's their money...on a daily basis they know how much we are spending as far as our salary budget goes and what we've got left for each player."

The Highlanders had become more competitive in the player market as they began to get similar amounts to spend on players as the wealthier franchises, Clark said.

When he started in 2010, the Highlanders had about $1 million less to spend on players than other New Zealand franchises, but only about $500,000 now separated the five franchises and they would be on an equal footing by 2015, he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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