Rugby: Six stepping up for Highlanders

Joe Wheeler is arguably the Highlanders' most reliable lock, writes Jeff Cheshire.
Joe Wheeler is arguably the Highlanders' most reliable lock, writes Jeff Cheshire.
Following the Highlanders' win over the Rebels on Friday, ODT Online rugby writer Jeff Cheshire identifies six players who have been taking big steps forward for the southern franchise this season.

Joe Wheeler

You have to be impressed by the way Joe Wheeler has come on in his second season at the Highlanders. Last season he was used mostly as a blindside flanker, where he worked hard but was a bit slow around the field, did not have quite enough dynamic ability and was prone to the odd mistake.

Despite being written off by many, Wheeler has come back and looked far more comfortable locking the scrum. He has emerged as a hard-working, low-error player who has clearly grown from the experience of last year. Physically he is making an impact, particularly on defence and his work rateis high, always amongst the top tacklers in the team. On attack you will see him cleaning out at rucks more often than not, something that tends to go unnoticed but should not be underestimated.

His lineout game is safe and he has emerged as a quality jumper in the middle and back of what was a troubled lineout in 2013. He is arguably now the Highlanders' most reliable lock and last week kept Brad Thorn and Josh Bekhuis out of the starting line up, and that is no mean feat.

Shane Christie

Christie has impressed at provincial level for a few years now, but it has not been until this season that he has finally got a decent crack at Super Rugby. His form for the Highlanders has been outstanding, shown by the fact that he is justifiably being chosen ahead of John Hardie in the No. 7 jersey.

He is a classical tearaway openside flanker, one who covers ground quickly, goes looking for tackles to make and does his best to get in and disrupt the opposition breakdown ball. With 88 tackles for the year he currently rates third on the list of most tackles in the competition, impressive considering he has not even started every game and half the teams have played a game more than the Highlanders. There are glimpses of a running game there too, as he fights hard through tackles, although he has not shown this on a consistent basis yet. He never slows down and will keep working hard for the full 80 minutes.

It might be a stretch to say he is a bolter for the All Blacks, but he surely at least deserves to be looked at. His form right now is as good as that of any New Zealand openside flanker, with only Luke Braid matching him, although they are two different types of players so comparisons are not always easy.

Kane Hames

Hames was a relatively unknown figure when he first came down south, but has forged a reputation as a sure-fire starter nearly every week. When the initial squad was named, the biggest concern seemed to be the lack of a genuinely good loosehead prop after the exits of Jamie Mackintosh and Tony Woodcock. Hames has filled this void well though and if anything has improved on the performances of Woodcock from last year.

There are generally three types of props at this level. The first is one that is a powerful scrummager, but does not do much else around the field. This sort of player does not usually last in New Zealand, but they are more prominent in Europe where the game is slower and tighter. The second is the solid scrummager who will drift in and out of the game and make more impactful plays. You see this in the likes of Owen Franks and Ben Tameifuna. Lastly, there is the player who just puts his head down and works for the entire 80 minutes, not necessarily putting big hits in or having big carries, but just working hard. This is the frame Hames fits into and does it very well.

He is another with a high tackle count, quite often cracking double digits, and is always close in support at the breakdown. Ultimately this is what you want from this sort of player, just to get involved. At scrum time he has been solid enough, not dominant but has held up okay, which is fine for the time being.

Aaron Smith

We all know Aaron Smith is one of the stars in this team, but he has taken great strides yet again in 2013. After taking over as the Highlanders' starting halfback in 2012, Smith was elevated to the All Blacks in what was something of a surprise move, being chosen over the experienced and still in-form Andy Ellis. In 2013 he was inconsistent with the Highlanders and many questioned whether he was still the man for the All Blacks job, which he would eventually flourish in.

You can make no mistake this year though, Smith has well and truly claimed the title of best halfback in New Zealand. His pass is looking as crisp as ever and is providing his back line with extra width to work with. He is now running more dangerously from the base and his box kicking has improved in that he is now allowing for his chasers to contest the ball on a consistent basis. Much of the good play this season has stemmed from his influence and the good news is he is only going to get better.

Malakai Fekitoa

Centre was another position that it was not clear who would start two months ago. Jason Emery and Phil Burleigh both seemed likely options, having been with the side last year and proving themselves to be reliable players. Malakai Fekitoa though has claimed the jersey for his own though, adding some of the spark that was missing in the midfield for a lot of 2013.

He is a dangerous runner who will take the line on aggressively and has the ability to change direction and run angles to make a break. Defensively he has been relatively solid, making the majority of his tackles, although was guilty of rushing up and leaving a gap on Friday night.

If he can develop more of a distribution game, Fekitoa will have the complete package and will be a valuable player in the years to come.

Richard Buckman

He has not lit up the opposition like the top wingers will, but Richard Buckman has been the epitome of a reliable, hard-working, solid winger. Under the high ball he has been rock solid, his work on defence has been good and he always applies pressure to the opposition when chasing kicks. With ball in hand you do not often see him making mistakes, even if he does not really have the ability to create something from nothing.

Given he was initially named in the wider-training squad, Buckman has done exceptionally well to secure himself the No. 14 jersey and should continue to hold it if he keeps playing how he is.

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