Highlanders to be bit smarter with style

MARC HINTON
Last updated 11:57 10/02/2013
Ben Smith
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
SLOW START: Jamie Brundell says the Highlanders have made a slow start to this year's competition, but they will improve.

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The tooled-up Highlanders are making a significant change in their playing style for 2013 that they hope will help morph them from Super Rugby pretenders into contenders.

Of course New Zealand's southernmost franchise has drawn the most attention for the trio of headline-making signings they made in luring veteran All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn for their first seasons in Dunedin.

This trio, with 231 test caps and three World Cup winners' medals between them, are the main reason people are now talking about Jamie Joseph's Highlanders as potential title contenders following two seasons where they rather flattered to deceive.

The presence of three such accomplished individuals can only help the Highlanders' cause. But it guarantees nothing.

Nonu and Woodcock were both part of Pat Lam's under-performing Blues last season and neither have been exactly renowned for their scintillating play at Super Rugby level in recent seasons.

Thorn's pedigree is more proven at the franchise level, but at 38, and coming off a season in Japan, it remains to be seen if any edge has come off his game. No one doubts the capacity of his influence as a hard-working forward who takes no short-cuts.

But talented fullback/midfielder Ben Smith revealed to the Sunday News that Joseph is instituting a key style change to the Highlanders for this season involving their approach to the contentious tackle ball area.

Over the previous two seasons - near identical campaigns where the Highlanders started promisingly, only to fade over the run home - Joseph's teams have attacked the breakdown with vigour.

That's seen the Highlanders effect a lot of turnovers, but also concede plenty of penalties. It has been a style where the risk element has not always been matched by the reward.

Now, with breakdown specialist Adam Thomson having departed, and Joseph having a bit of a rethink, it would appear we could be set for a more calculated Highlanders approach in 2013.

"There is definitely a Highlanders way, and we like to get stuck in, but we're going to try to be a little bit smarter in some things we do, especially at the breakdown" said Smith whose Highlanders beat the Crusaders 38-21 in a warmup clash in Oamaru on Friday.

"If there's one thing changing, it's we're just going to be a little bit smarter."

Not before time, some would say.

Smith said Joseph had clearly put some thought into it. "He's come up with some ways we can benefit there, still having a good attitude round the breakdown but just being smart in our decision- making."

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Smith, who played 10 of his 12 tests for the All Blacks last year, said the high expectations around the Highlanders were something they could not hide from as they looked to sustain their challenge in 2013.

"The expectation is something we need to embrace," said the fullback who could end up filling in at centre for the recuperating Tamati Ellison. "That expectation is something good, and we need to walk towards that and be excited by it.

"We have got a good squad, and we're really keen to put a lot of hard work in and go from there." Smith said the new All Blacks had also not taken long to fit seamlessly into their new rugby homes.

"Ma'a, Woody and Thorny add a lot of experience, and their presence is great for the guys just starting out in Super Rugby. Those guys lead through their actions, and you can tell in the couple of weeks they've been here they're enjoying the environment down here.

"And when you're enjoying your rugby you're probably playing your best rugby and that's pretty exciting going into the season." Smith's own ambitions remain very much limited to his home-town Highlanders. It's one step at a time for a young man on the rise in New Zealand rugby.

He knows only too well if the new-look, smarter Highlanders can fire in Super Rugby, good things will happen for those playing their part.

- Sunday News

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