Rugby: Big guns put new pressures on Highlanders

Brad Thorn will join the Highlanders squad on Friday. Photo Getty
Brad Thorn will join the Highlanders squad on Friday. Photo Getty
The Highlanders' new big three have arrived and with them new challenges for head coach Jamie Joseph.

Brad Thorn, a World Cup-winning former All Black, has returned from his stint at Fukuoka in Japan and will join current internationals Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu at the Highlanders from Friday, the latter pair making the shift from the Blues.

Joseph admitted his squad, which also features the likes of All Blacks Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Aaron Smith, Andrew Hore and Jarrad Hoeata, is one of the strongest he has coached.

"To be really honest I think that's why we've been able to change the perception of the Highlanders," he said.

"In recent years there hasn't been on paper a really good team and because of that [recruitment] and the fact that we've been able to beat most of the top teams in the last two seasons, it gives us credibility. It gives us more expectations from our support base and we're just going to have to meet those."

Asked if that brought different pressures, he said: "I'm sure it does ... We went out quite aggressively trying to get a better quality of player and in many ways we achieved that. Turning what I guess is potential into profit is what my job is and I'm finding that exciting, but many teams have been in this situation before and haven't been successful and I guess that's the challenge for me and my coaches."

The arrival of Thorn, a 37-year-old who has won most things in his career, including a Heineken Cup with Leinster during a remarkable loan period from the Fukuoka Sanix Blues, will be hotly anticipated south of the Waitaki River.

The former Crusaders lock has opted to see out his rugby career in Otago where it all began and will bring a new steel to what was already a competitive pack. Likewise, the addition of loosehead prop Woodcock could also do wonders.

"Thorny will bring a different level of expectation to the team," Joseph said.

"For me, what I saw in Japan, his presence and ability ... he puts a lot of onus on himself to front up and be professional all the time and that can only be good for any team. I'm really excited about Thorny being a part of it.

"The likes of his presence especially in the pack with Woody, it gives our pack not only credibility but also confidence."

The All Blacks aren't required to report for their Super Rugby franchises until next week but all the Highlanders will be on deck on Friday for an important pre-season event - a 25km hike in the wilds of Greenstone Valley west of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown.

"It gives us an appreciation I guess of the land and people we represent in the deep south. It's worked bloody well for us in the past," Joseph said.

Now for Joseph's not-so-good news. The injury curse which has afflicted him during his two seasons at the Highlanders has already struck. Options at loose forward could be an issue, with Doug Tietjens rupturing his Achilles last week playing touch, Nasi Manu pulling a hamstring and Jack Paringatai breaking a hand. Otago loose forward Paul Grant has been called in as cover.

Wing Declan O'Donnell dislocated a shoulder with Joseph's Maori team in the United Kingdom and has been replaced by Maori fullback and former Chief Trent Renata.

Back utility Tamati Ellison could return later this year after shoulder surgery and first-five Colin Slade is making a careful comeback after a catalogue of groin issues.

Joseph can only laugh about his already bulging casualty ward, safe in the knowledge he has some big guns coming and the fact the season is longer than it used to be.

- Patrick McKendry of APNZ