Highlanders mix excites, says Jamie Joseph
The Highlanders began their 2012 Super 15 rugby season against the Chiefs.
The 2013 season will start the same way, but with very different expectations from 12 months previously.
In February 2012, the game in Hamilton - a 23-19 win for the Highlanders - was a battle of two underachieving franchises.
When the sides play in Dunedin in February 2013, the Chiefs go in as defending Super Rugby champions, while the Highlanders will have the weight of expectation that signing a bevy of All Blacks brings.
What a difference a year makes. Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph beams a broad smile at the prospect.
"It's certainly a game we will want to go out here and challenge for," he said. "It's at home, we're against the reigning champions, there is no doubt in my mind the guys will be pretty pumped to win the game
"But we've won the first four or five games both years I've coached the Highlanders and lost the last two or three, so the first game isn't a good indicator for how you'll go in the comp."
As any Chiefs fan could tell you.
The Highlanders have flirted with playoff football in both of Joseph's seasons in charge, only to fall at the last hurdle.
In 2011, the side's youthful makeup told in the run-in, while in 2012 a shocking run of injuries saw the Highlanders seldom able to field a first-choice XV.
Hence, Joseph has opted for depth and experience for 2013. The recruitment of Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn brings the combined wisdom of 224 All Blacks test caps to the side. With eight other All Blacks - and Japanese international Fumiaki Tanaka - in the mix, the new-look Highlanders will boast a wealth of players with knowledge of how to handle pressure rugby.
"We're pretty excited about the players we've selected: I think we've got a good balance of young, exciting dudes, and some older players who have played at the highest level," Joseph said. "My job is to bring that together and win as many games as possible."
The Highlanders will pose a formidable challenge up front. New skipper Andrew Hore and Woodcock are likely to pack down with Thorn and three-test lock Jarrad Hoeta in behind, and a strong group of loose forwards.
In Aaron Smith and Tanaka the franchise has two halfbacks assistant coach Jon Preston rates the fastest clearers of the ball in New Zealand. On their outside, luckless All Black Colin Slade has the chance to overcome his cursed run of injuries and steer a backline that wouldn't look out of place if all were in black jerseys rather than blue and gold.
"Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu, could go anywhere in the world to play their rugby but they have chosen the Highlanders. That speaks volumes about the players who have created our environment and our team culture," Joseph said.
"Our goal is go out there and play attractive attacking rugby."
The one big loss from the 2012 Highlanders is Adam Thomson - widely expected to be moving overseas to play next season.
"He will be a huge loss for us because he is a player who won games for us by himself last season through the strength of his individual performance," Joseph said.
"He was close to coming back until, I guess, he got an opportunity to go somewhere else . . . we are disappointed not to have his services because he has been a great guy for us."
Josh Bekhuis, Tim Boys, Phil Burleigh, Liam Coltman, Elliot Dixon, Tamati Ellison, Jason Emery, Ma'afu Fia, Hosea Gear, John Hardie, Jarrad Hoeata, Andrew Hore, Chris King, Jamie Mackintosh, Nasi Manu, Brayden Mitchell, Ma'a Nonu, Declan O'Donnell, Jake Paringatai, Kade Poki, Hayden Parker, Buxton Popoalii, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Fumiaki Tanaka, Brad Thorn, Shaun Treeby, Joe Wheeler, Tony Woodcock.