Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Woody heading back to the Blues

A surprise return to the Blues is on the cards for Tony Woodcock, with the new test centurion expected to announce this week where he will be playing Super Rugby in 2014.

The 32-year-old, who last night became the fourth All Black to win 100 caps, is believed to be more than likely returning to Auckland. He shifted to the Highlanders this year but for a number of reasons, the move hasn't worked out and the chances are high that he will come back to the Blues.

If he does, it will be a massive boost for coach John Kirwan, who is desperate to find experienced, quality tight forwards. Woodcock's departure caught the Blues by surprise and when All Blacks tighthead Charlie Faumuina suffered a serious leg injury early in this year's campaign, they struggled at times in the set-piece.

Injuries and lack of game time prevented Woodcock from hitting top form for the Highlanders but there is little debate that when he's fit, he remains one of the best props in the world.

Conversely, if the Highlanders lose Woodcock, it will plunge them further into rebuild mode and throw up yet more questions about what happened there this year.

The Herald on Sunday understands the franchise is in the midst of a major review that is trying to determine how a side that began the season widely fancied to make the playoffs ended up 14th.

The Highlanders lost their first nine games and endured a stream of players announcing that they would be leaving the franchise.

Hosea Gear and Kade Poki revealed they would be taking up overseas contracts. So did Tamati Ellison, although he's waiting to see if he can return to Dunedin after a season in Japan. Colin Slade is returning to the Crusaders.

When former captain Jamie Mackintosh signed with the Chiefs, it was indicative of serious issues within the franchise.

The one-cap All Blacks prop had been the captain of the Highlanders for the last two seasons and was commonly viewed as the heart and soul of the side.

A deeply proud southern man, he was dumped as captain this year and barely sighted. But the defections haven't ended there.

The man who replaced Mackintosh as captain, Andrew Hore, faces an uncertain future. It is understood he hasn't been offered a contract extension by the Highlanders. That may change - but time is running out and Hore is thought to have options elsewhere.

Then there is the Ma'a Nonu situation. The Highlanders, some time ago, made him an offer to stay. His silence on that indicated to the Highlanders he wasn't keen and as everyone surely knows, Nonu and many others are trying to persuade the Hurricanes to take him back.

There has been some suggestion that if the Hurricanes can't be budged, then Nonu will simply stay in Dunedin. But it would be questionable whether that would be sensible. It wouldn't be in the best interests of either party given Nonu has indicated that he doesn't want to be there.

And now there is the possibility of Woodcock moving on, which if he does, will leave the Highlanders short of props - and in terms of personnel, a vastly weakened side from where they were this time last year.

It's possible that by the time they confirm their final roster for 2014 it will be shorn of seven All Blacks - Gear, Nonu, Ellison, Slade, Mackintosh, Hore and Woodcock.

Turnover is typically high in most franchises but losing seven international players in one season would be unusual. They have, it is believed, recruited former Force first-five Willie Ripia and Chiefs wing Patrick Osborne signed earlier this month.

- Herald on Sunday

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