The 2013 Super Rugby season is in its early stages but, aside from the Blues love-in from the television networks, the angle that seems to be giving neutrals around the country the most joy is the horror start from the Highlanders.
That’s the All Black laden Highlanders, with an aggressive recruitment programme towards the end of last year. And that is why this start to the season is causing some chuckles.
Three losses at home. The first one was against the defending champion so that can be excused and explained, but a 17 point hiding at Fortress Invercargill to the Cheetahs is pretty humiliating. The Highlanders had won their previous seven matches against the Cheetahs. The visitors who got thumped by more than 40 points the previous week led 30-7 at halftime. Game over. Then even the Hurricanes, despite a desire to turn the ball over at every opportunity, managed to put them away.
It was not meant to be like this. All the hype around the big name purchases, down south they were supposed to be creating The Dream Team. What made all these big names arriving strange was that it was to a franchise whose main two unions have both danced with bankruptcy over the last three years.
This season’s star imports were all very good players, but arrived with more baggage than a Rolling Stones world tour. Three current or former All Blacks were signed, which is unprecedented in NZ super rugby history.
Ma’a Nonu made it three Super rugby franchises in as many years with his move. Central to the discord at the Hurricanes in 2011 he then was seen as one of the issues with the poor performance and dramas at the Blues last year. Third time lucky? He pulled out of the Cheetahs match at the last minute.
Finally there is Brad Thorn. Formerly of the Brisbane Broncos, Queensland, the Kanagaroos, Canterbury, Crusaders, All Blacks, Broncos again, Crusaders again, All Blacks again, Tasman, Fukuoka Sanix Blues, and Leinster. Thorn has pretty much every trophy know to rugby union and league. He joins the Highlanders aged 38.
Not really the types of players to build a team around.
It started before this though. The previous season set the trend with the recruitment of Andrew Hore and Hose Gear, also as a result of the fallout from the Hurricanes politics of 2011.
We had not seen Andrew Hore on our screens since that gutless cheap shot in Cardiff in November of last year. Since then he served out that joke five match ban which meant he missed out on the Highlanders warm-up matches and could spend the summer break fishing, or whatever he does for recreation.
But there he was on TV two days before his comeback match; rolling around the bank at the University Oval during the first day’s play of the cricket test against England. That is an interesting build-up to your first game in over three months when you are captain.
He lasted 55 minutes before getting pulled. He is now out for eight weeks
That attitude seemed symbolic of where the players are at. There is also the curious case of Adam Thomson, a player of enormous ability at this level. However, there always seemed to be issues surrounding him. In theory he could have played for the Highlanders this season before joining the Canon Eagles in Japan in August. The fact that did not happen, and rumours about playing half a season, or even joining the Blues, indicates there were other issues at play there too. Not a happy camp.
Jamie Joseph is a good coach. He led Wellington to a Ranfurly Shield triumph and consecutive NPC finals in his stint there, and not a lot of coaches can claim that. However, his best performances have been when in charge of young players, not a random assortment of discontents.
From a part of the country known for its down to earth, non-flashy attitude to life this approach just seems so wrong.
So pull up a seat, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show. There will be tears before the season has finished.