Well-travelled Welshman eyes Zoo

Highlanders first five Rhys Patchell tries to get around Crusaders defenders Blair Murray (left)...
Highlanders first five Rhys Patchell tries to get around Crusaders defenders Blair Murray (left) and Noah Hotham during the preseason game in Methven last Friday. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Rhys Patchell has seen and heard plenty of things in the world of rugby but is eager to get his first taste of the Zoo tomorrow night.

Patchell will make his Super Rugby debut after a career that has included 22 test caps for his native Wales and a decade at the top level in Europe.

His quality and composure at first five are seen as vital by a Highlanders team in rebuilding mode — and both will be scrutinised by the loud end of Forsyth Barr Stadium when they play Moana Pasifika.

"I’ve been told the Zoo can get fairly lively, which is awesome," Patchell said yesterday.

"That type of stuff makes an atmosphere."

The 30-year-old former Cardiff and Scarlets playmaker has enjoyed his first taste of New Zealand rugby in three preseason wins.

But with the miles on his clock, he knows the deal is different tomorrow night.

"First points are on offer this weekend and we’re really excited about it. We’ll see where we are on Saturday night.

"I think week one of the season is always really exciting, and there’s always a different feel compared to preseason weeks. The boys are ready to get going."

Much had been made of the youthfulness of the Highlanders squad but there were plenty of players with useful levels of experience, Patchell said.

In an overhauled Highlanders backline, Patchell will be joined in a playmaking duo by Sam Gilbert.

He has given his unqualified backing to the former fullback’s permanent switch to the No 12 jersey.

"Sam’s awesome. He’s an unbelievable player and a great human, and he was super welcoming to me as a new player.

"He’s got all the attributes, hasn’t he? Big human, big frame, runs his weight, ball player, kicks — he does it all, and I’m looking forward to getting alongside him and building a relationship with him on the field."

Gilbert appears set to retain goal-kicking duties after his astonishing run of success last year.

That is fine with Patchell, who pointed out he had played large chunks of his career with super boot Leigh Halfpenny who was set to add to the Welsh flavour in Super Rugby before getting injured with the Crusaders.

There will still be another "boyo" in Dunedin this weekend as Moana Pasifika bring down former Wales and Lions first five Stephen Jones, who helped mentor Patchell, as as part of Tana Umaga’s coaching staff.

"Steve and Wayne Pivac were coaching at Scarlets, and to work with those two was a big driver for me to leave Cardiff.

"He lives just down the road actually, back home, so I see him fairly often and we go for coffees.

"He’s an awesome human. He has really clear views about how he sees the game, and I’ve enjoyed working with him."

Patchell grinned when asked if the Highlanders would have a new Welsh fanbase waking up for breakfast and watching the opening game.

"There will be a couple of households, that’s for sure.

"Funnily enough, my brother and his wife and family were in New Zealand last year and they quickly ducked out and bought some Highlanders tops.

"I’d say there will be a couple of people in South Wales who have got their subscription to Sky. They’ll be gutted the games are so early but they’ll be tuning in."


Highlanders in 2024
How they look

Last year: Won 5, lost 9, ninth.
Coach: Clarke Dermody (second year).
Key forward: Ethan de Groot is now the face of the Highlanders following the departure of Aaron Smith. The powerful loosehead prop has a steely determination that will help carry an under-rated forward pack.
Key back: And who is the face of the backline? Folau Fakatava. He has served his apprenticeship under Smith and now gets an opportunity to shine every week.
One to watch: New recruit Timoci Tavatavanawai has something the Highlanders have lacked for years: sheer explosiveness. The former Moana Pasifika winger always seems to beat the first defender, and hopes are high he and fellow newcomer Jacob 
Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens can generate some excitement.
Chances: The realists will point to the departures of Smith, Josh Dickson and Shannon Frizell, the lack of real game-breakers across the board, the paucity of All Blacks, and the average age of the squad, and they will suggest this year is very much about rebuilding. Fair call. But you might also look at a backline that appears to be more dangerous, and hope they have some luck with injuries, and assess a kinder draw than last year, and crunch the numbers and realise it really is not that hard to make the playoffs, and imagine the positive influence of new director of rugby Jamie Joseph and new attack coach Kenny Lynn. The Highlanders will certainly strike issues with depth if the casualty ward gets busy, and it is hard to see them challenging the top 
four or five teams. But it would still be a disappointment if they again fail to make the top eight.
Meikle’s prediction: Seventh.