After another bumbling effort, this time against a Blues team that sought to play integrated, coherent rugby, it has become apparent that the Highlanders are destined for a truly horrific season. Taine Randall, on Re-union, identified the failures of the loose forwards as the central reason for their troubles. And it is true in that only John Hardie was- and is- truly consistent and playing at a Super 15 level of that trio. Eliot Dixon with ball in hand has the look of a a young Murray Mexted on the charge, but he lacks all those other skills that made Mexted such a great player. Even more so, Dixon seems to lack the rugby brain that has allowed Mexted to to successfully succeed with IRANZ. Dixon is in that level of solid ITM Cup player who cannot make a sustained leap up a level. he lacks the basic awareness of what his position demands. This is increasingly common as too many players stall at ITM cup- or semi-pro level. The talent base in NZ is never as large as we may wish to believe it to be- and demographics is the central answer. There is a limit on the number of players capable of playing successfully at a top professional level. we see this also with the number of second-tier players who struggle with the Rebels and the Force. Or, those who disappear to Japan and even there have middling careers. As for Hoeta, he is a sad case of player picked for the All Blacks out of necessity and a small pool of possibilities. He never was All Black material- and definitely is not now. He is, to put it bluntly, a stupid player doing stupid things, mistaking idiocy for aggression and bad attitude for ability.
Yet the problems are far greater.
Nonu's limitations as a player- and individual- are increasingly evident. He needs both a quality, directional first five and centre to be able to do what he does best- which is to play an instinctive, individual game. Against the Blues he played stupidly- and selfishly. He will probably head off-shore at the end of the season before his 'brand' is too tarnished. Also expect him to go to the easier league of Japan where he can dominate by sheer presence alone. In Europe he would be too easily shut down.
Even more worryingly, Smith at half-back is looking increasingly like a one-season All Black. What was exciting about his game- the speed of pass- is looking more and more like the one-dimensional offering he has to make. Behind a pack under pressure and with indecisive backs outside him it is increasingly, and sadly evident, that he done not bring enough mental tightness nor rugby vision to his game- in the end he is just a passing machine.
Overall what the Highlanders demonstrate is that NZ can really only provide 4 top-tier super rugby teams. Likewise Australia can - at a stretch- provide four, and South Africa four also. What is needed is an intermediate conference below Super Rugby - or, as was successfully done with the ITM cup, split the Super 15 into a upper and lower division with promotion relegation to upper/lower at the end of the season.
The other issue for the Highlanders is the white elephant stadium. There is only a need for a single large rugby stadium in NZ- and Dunedin is not the place to have it. Sky TV, large screen tvs, and night games all mean Super rugby games fail to fill their stadiums. even the Crusaders ground struggles to fill to its 17,000 capacity. 17,000 should be the limit for any rugby ground outside the main one- which should be in Auckland given demographics. Christchurch's planned large stadium is only going to be an on-going burden on rate-payers and the rugby-going public. It- like most grounds- will struggle to be filled. what NZ rugby needs to do is have a look at South Africa and consider how the Stormers can get 48,000 to an afternoon game against the Crusaders- or how the Sharks and Bulls can fill their stadiums. Even the reds seem to be able to attract larger crowds. Yes these are larger cities than most NZ ones- but there are other, social and cultural factors at play. How do we get fans off the couch and into the stands- unless NZ rugby seriously considers this we are doomed to rugby payed increasingly for virtual fans in half-empty stadiums. It may not matter to Sky TV but it should be of concern to NZ rugby.