When it was announced that the Highlanders had the services of Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu and Brad Thorn for the 2013 Super Rugby season, it seemed the Highlanders would have a very competitive team. Between them, the three new signings have 231 All Blacks caps, and 305 Super Rugby caps – when added to the likes of Andrew Hore, it seemed the Highlanders would have a very magical team for 2013. Definitely the team to watch!
Some very impressive pairings automatically came to mind – Hore and Woodcock in the front row, Thorn and Jarrad Hoeata together in the locking department, then in the backs Aaron Smith feeding the ball to Ma’a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear and Ben Smith. Ten players with All Black & Maori All Blacks experience, it seemed like a no brainer. As an ex-Highlanders supporter I must admit that I was excited for the team – they have always had potential but have never quite made it as far as they could, but surely with their new line up they’d have as good of a chance as ever.
But (remember, always a but!) 2013 has turned out to be a bad year for the Highlanders. A bad bad bad year. We are now approaching round 9 of the Super XV season, and the Highlanders are yet to notch up a win. ALL that depth of experience – 351 test caps between all the past/present All Blacks on the team, and they have been unable to win. I am not saying the Highlanders have played badly – there are 3 or 4 of the games they lost that they could have won, but at the end of the day, they didn’t.
A big talking point prior to the 2013 Super XV campaign kicking off, was that the new signings would offer a wealth of knowledge and experience to the team. While I’m sure their knowledge and experience has been beneficial to the other players on the team, it seems that the Highlanders have become almost a ‘retirement home’ for players. Rather than playing with the energy and vitality of younger players, all these new, experienced signings seem to be making little impact at all on the team, almost as if they’d be happier sitting down to a game of BINGO or crib, while sipping on a sherry.
When you look at numbers (as I regularly do, having a fetish for rugby statistics), on paper the Highlanders have the oldest average age, at 25.7 years, followed by the Hurricanes on 25.1, the Chiefs on 24.8, the Blues on 24.0 and the Crusaders on 23.7. When analysed even further – focusing solely on forward packs, the Highlanders again have the oldest age average, at 27.9 years, with the four other teams averaging between 25.1 and 25.9 years. These averages make it clear that while age can often mean experience – it doesn’t always translate into success.
As we enter round nine, it seems that the Highlanders coaches are shaking things up to try and get that elusive first win of the season – All Blacks Aaron Smith and Colin Slade have been dropped, in favour of some lesser-known names. I personally think this is a good thing – because it HAS been all the ‘lesser’ knowns from the team, who are performing well this year. The likes of Elliot Dixon, Phil Burleigh (who also has the added benefit of being some major eye candy!) and Kade Poki have been playing exceptionally well. I think it’s time for the coaches to stop waiting for the bigger names (namely any player who has worn the black jersey in the last 24 months) to finally step up, and for them to instead give the lesser-knowns a chance to prove their worth.
While I’m at it, perhaps the Highlanders lack of success is all down to the ‘Nonu Curse’. Think about it it. 2011 – Hurricanes play badly. With Nonu. 2012 – Blues play badly. With Nonu. 2013 – Highlanders are playing badly. With Nonu. Yes, perhaps it’s unfair to suggest, but I guarantee you it is a thought that every Kiwi rugby fan has had over the past couple of weeks. I would go as far as to say that the Highlanders will secure their first win without Nonu on the field.