Mackintosh gone, Highlanders focus on Smith

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:02 03/07/2013
Ben Smith
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WORTH THE COST: Ben Smith was about the only thing that made going to a Highlanders game worthwhile this season.

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The Highlanders are hopeful of re-signing All Black Ben Smith and putting together a competitive team for 2014 despite losing former skipper Jamie Mackintosh this week.

Mackintosh joins a growing queue of players, including Hosea Gear (France) and Kade Poki (Japan), looking for the exit at Forsyth Barr Stadium after one of the worst seasons in the franchise's history, while the future of controversial midfielder Ma'a Nonu remains uncertain.

Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark believes the team is heading in the right direction.

"The guys we knew that are going, are going. We are pretty confident we've got a good nucleus of a team for next year that we have been building for the last three years. There's a good 20 of them signed, most of them have been with us for two or three years.

"We are pretty confident that we will put a little bit of cream around that in the next couple of months."

Ben Smith remains the main priority for the Highlanders, even more so following the loss of fellow outside backs Gear and Poki to overseas contracts and Clark said news about the linebreaking fullback would be available soon after being in talks with him since Christmas.

"It's started to heat up. I'd like to think there will be a conclusion shortly. He's the key one at the moment, our full focus is on keeping him at the moment. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that when you're losing Hosea and Kade Poki, and he's one of the best going around, and he's a local boy [that] we are pretty keen to make sure that he's around and that we can build a backline around him."

As well as outside backs, the Highlanders will also go to the market to find a replacement for Mackintosh.

The Highlanders had been keen to retain the Southland skipper, particularly with a new ruling in place next year which will require Super Rugby teams to carry two props on their bench.

"For me personally it's a disappointment," Clark said.

"We wouldn't have offered him a contract unless we wanted him, but I can also understand his disappointment at the signing of Tony Woodcock and the fact that he's obviously looking at his opportunities. I know Whopper still has ambitions to play for the All Blacks, as I'd expect, and maybe a change will be good for him from a personal point of view so he'll be able to get back to his aspirations."

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Neither Mackintosh, nor his agent Simon Porter, could be contacted yesterday.

Rugby Southland are in talks with Mackintosh's agent about extending his provincial contract, which ends this season.

General manager Brian Hopley confirmed discussions were continuing with the Southland skipper.

Mackintosh was linked with Hawke's Bay two years ago before re-signing with the Stags, and has gone on to play 92 games for the province.

He could become Southland's 12th centurion if he can play through the bulk of the NPC championship.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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