Welsh wizard surprise new Highlanders face

Rhys Patchell is delighted to be with the Highlanders. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Rhys Patchell is delighted to be with the Highlanders. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Rhys Patchell does not have particularly fond memories of the last time he played a game at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

But the Welsh international is relishing the prospect of playing for the home team and getting lots of dry ball next year.

Patchell, 30, has arrived in Dunedin as the surprise new face in the Highlanders and is eagerly counting down the days until he makes his Super Rugby debut.

He hopes it goes slightly better than the night, in 2016, he started for Wales at fullback in a 46-6 loss to the All Blacks at the covered ground.

"All I can see is Ben Smith running around me all night," he said yesterday with a rueful smile.

Patchell was a rugby-mad kid - he was in the Cardiff crowd to see the All Blacks lose to France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, and he regularly set his alarm to get up early and watch Super Rugby from the other side of the world.

Accepting an offer from the Highlanders was a no-brainer.

"I don’t think anyone turns down Super Rugby," Patchell told the Otago Daily Times.

"The opportunity was too good for me to turn down, personally. It doesn’t come across your desk very often.

"I spoke to Clarke [Dermody], I spoke to Kenny [Lynn] and I thought, yep, this spins my wheels. Let’s give it a go."

Patchell has vague memories of the 1999 final at Carisbrook - the "Party at Tony Brown’s" - and has always seen the Highlanders as a team that has been willing to have a go.

He has vast experience in northern hemisphere rugby with 22 caps for Wales and 13 seasons of top-level competition for the Cardiff Blues and the Llanelli-based Scarlets.

But do not make the mistake of assuming he is the sort of kick-first playmaker traditionally associated with northern rugby.

"As a 10, I think it’s important to find a team that suits the way you want to play.

"I was better suited in the northern hemisphere to the Scarlets, who were a run-first team with a kicking game, not a kick-first team with a running game.

"Hopefully that will lend itself to the attacking mindset of Super Rugby and New Zealand rugby.

"But equally, people have this negative perception around kicking in rugby. In order to have a good attacking game, you have to have a good kicking game. To have that kick-run-pass threat is what opens up defences.

"I would not be a conservative, sit-back-in-the-pocket, Ronan O’Gara-esque 10. But you can’t disregard that you need kicking as part of your locker."

Patchell follows in the recent bootsteps of English international Freddie Burns, who played for the Highlanders this year in the twilight of his career.

Like Burns, Patchell will be asked to both contribute on the field and act as something of a mentor to his younger first fives, Cam Millar and Ajay Faleafaga.

"I’m keen to get my boots on the ground and pitch in wherever I can, as much as I can.

"If you’re an experienced player, to my mind, it is your place to help younger guys along, as much as they will help me along, because they’re going to see the game in a completely different way.

A young Patchell gets tangled with All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg while Beauden Barrett goes in...
A young Patchell gets tangled with All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg while Beauden Barrett goes in for a try during the test at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2016.
"But all three of us are here to compete for a jersey, there’s no doubting that. I’m looking forward to competing with them, and trying to hunt them down in preseason."

Patchell’s tests were spread over a decade, and included a sharp goal-kicking performance in a win over the Wallabies at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

There have been drastic changes in Welsh rugby over the past 12 months, including a long stand-off between the players and the national union, and tinkering with the eligibility laws.

Patchell is thinking only of his Highlanders debut and not a potential return to the test ranks.

"My feet are in Dunedin and I am very excited about that."

He is excited by what he has seen from his new city and team.

"It’s been awesome. Amazing.

"I’m probably about four weeks out with the clothes I packed. It’s not quite fully summer yet. You get a couple of good days and you think, here we go.

"The boys have been really welcoming. The environment, the staff - everybody has made me feel welcome. There’s some good coffee shops as well."

Patchell is preparing for a stretch away from his fiancee, broadcaster Heledd Anna, who hosts a weekly sports show.

They are both passionate about the Welsh language, which was Patchell’s first language.

"There’s a real desire to see a revival of the Welsh language.

"Welsh schools are full, which is wonderful, and the Welsh government has a target that by 2050 there will be a million Welsh speakers.

"I’m very proud I am able to speak Welsh. It’s a key part of my identity."

Highlanders fans could use one Welsh word next season, he hoped.

"Hwyl. Hwyl means a number of things. For me, in the sporting environment, it means a spirit and a collective togetherness. It can also mean fun. So hopefully, you know."

hayden.meikle@odt.co.nz