Star Highlanders must step up to inspire
February 25, 2013
Ma'a Nonu and the big-name signings must do more to inspire the younger squad members © Getty Images
The Highlanders' final-quarter capitulation to the Chiefs surprised a number of New Zealand sports writers, but not all of them.
Cynicism about how ex-Blues players Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock would perform first-up for their new franchises was inevitable.
For Nonu, it was his third franchise in as many years; questions have surfaced about his longevity, but Friday's match offered a chance to prove his value for a franchise returning to the standards expected of a New Zealand franchise.
Tony Woodcock's move was perhaps less surprising. The new propping stocks in the Auckland area - including the ever-improving Charlie Faumuina - meant Woodcock needed to make the most of his available time in a No. 1 jersey.
Two big names don't make a winning team. But just as how the Blues were seen as dark horses in 2012 - they finished at the bottom of the New Zealand conference despite signing stars Piri Weepu and Nonu - so too were the Highlanders in 2013.
New Zealand's southernmost franchise produced a topsy-turvy performance as they let a six-point lead slip with a quarter of the match to play to lose 41-27. While there was a good dose of southern spirit shown on Friday, the Chiefs' cohesion ensured they were able to reassess the situation and continue the game at a frenetic pace to the despair of a tiring Highlanders outfit. That final 20 minutes effectively proved the difference between a team for which winning comes naturally, and one still developing.
The Blues deserved to win the see-sawing contest
The Highlanders will have learned many lessons about the intensity required to win matches against high-quality opposition, but coach Jamie Joseph must ensure he gets the best out of his two Blues imports. With workhorse Brad Thorn's return imminent, Nonu and Woodcock each needs to ensure their work rate reaches the same level as the 38-year-old dual code representative. Inspiring individual performances will ensure the next lot of players will come to know and respect their predecessors as well as their legacies. Put simply: if you had a son and he had just cracked the Highlanders squad as a centre, would you be rapt with him learning about professionalism and on-field conduct from Nonu?
It's too hard to tell at this stage what effect each of the three imports will have, but their individual performances must reach the heights of the Southern Alps to ensure the apprentices take note and apply the learning to their own performances. Perhaps then will we see a spirited Highlanders effort for 80 minutes.