Super Rugby
Highlanders should expect to be top dogs
February 21, 2013
Ma'a Nonu of the Highlanders poses for a photo, Highlanders v Blues, Super Rugby trial match, Queenstown Recreation Ground, New Zealand, February 15, 2013
Ma'a Nonu and the Highlanders will be fans' favourites in 2013, Jeff Wilson believes © Getty Images

The Highlanders should expect to top the New Zealand conference this year, if not to go close to winning the whole competition.

It's not just my allegiance to the Highlanders from my playing days that makes me feel this way: the squad they've put together, and what they have achieved over the past couple of years; their stadium and the facilities they have - all the pieces of the Super Rugby puzzle have arrived.

And the biggest piece in the puzzle is Brad Thorn.

Thorn brings steel up front. He'll do a great job mentoring a player like Jarrad Hoeta and getting even more out of Josh Bekhuis. He just brings some real solidity to the pack. Also, his presence in the scrum will benefit Chris King, who is a good Super Rugby player; but the Highlanders will have concerns with tight-head prop. And you can't fault Thorn's work ethic, which has been a hallmark. If there's one guy who'll be able to handle everything Jamie Joseph dishes out, it will be Brad Thorn.

Tony Woodcock is the best loosehead in the world, and he has also headed to Dunedin with his experience. He was outstanding last year in a struggling Blues pack. He will be a menace at scrum time, he is so effective at the breakdown, and for a tight forward he is very good defensively. You put him in there with Andrew Hore and Brad Thorn and you have the heart of a Rugby World Cup-winning forward pack.

The Highlanders will be tough up front, in typical Jamie Joseph style, but they also have a strong backline. The backline is going to be without Tamati Ellison, due to his shoulder surgery, but they still have Hosea Gear, Ben Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Aaron Smith and some other talented individuals.

Ma'a Nonu brings X-factor and leadership. He will carry the ball strongly, and he'll be able to release and create for the guys on the outside - who are talented. He'll also be strong defensively. Ma'a has always finished the season strongly, but he probably hasn't played a Super Rugby season consistently well for a long time; they are going to need him to start well. But he has a good relationship with Jamie Joseph, he's committed to what he's doing down there, and he will enjoy playing in that covered stadium.

The one challenge they will have is playing the fast-paced rugby needed week in and week out at Forsyth Barr Stadium. But they've been able to create depth within their squad, as well as the ability to dominate in the areas of the field, especially up front consistently because they have got that depth, and they are going to be very, very difficult to beat in Dunedin.

I haven't been as excited about a Super Rugby season for a long time, as it's just so even across the five New Zealand teams as a result of the equalisation of the funding.

That equalised funding gave the Highlanders more opportunity to strengthen their squad, and they've certainly done a fantastic job of that. But all the teams are going in with a little more depth, and maybe stronger starting line-ups. The Blues might not be as deep as their New Zealand rivals, but they have still got some serious talent on their roster.

You get the feeling that if any of the teams can start with some momentum, it will put them in good stead later on; but you also still get the feeling that any team can beat the others on any given night.

I think there are some really good story lines: those senior All Blacks heading to Dunedin; young talent coming through with the Blues; where the Hurricanes can get to now they're not going to catch anyone by surprise; can the Crusaders succeed without Richie McCaw? And then you've got the defending champions. Did everything just fall into place for the Chiefs in 2012 because so many things seemed to happen for them just out of the blue?

It's just a great mix this year, especially in the New Zealand conference, where I don't think you can predict what is going to happen. But I'll stick with my prediction that the Highlanders can top the conference and go close to winning the competition.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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