There will be no shortage of banter in the Tasman Mako camp this season with the announcement that former favourite Joe Wheeler will rejoin the team.
The popular and much-travelled lock, who now plies his rugby trade in Japan, has signed a one-year deal with Tasman, bringing him back to the region where he began his career.
Wheeler played 80 games for the Mako, from 2008-2015; 65 times for the Highlanders from 2013-17, a stint which included a Super Rugby title; and 31 matches for the Suntory Sungoliath in Japan since joining them in 2016. He also played four times for the NZ Maori team.
The 31-year-old is contracted to Suntory for two more seasons but, due to the Rugby World Cup being staged in their country this year, the Japanese Top League competition will go on hold, leaving Wheeler looking for an opportunity to maintain match fitness in 2019 and have some fun along the way.
The familiar Mako environment seemed a perfect fit and before Christmas he had signed up, excited to be returning to an environment he loves, plus setting up a chance to take care of some unfinished business.
“It’s very exciting, how it all lined up. With there being no season in Japan this year and Tasman looking for another lock … the stars aligned and I’m really looking forward to throwing the jersey back on which will be really special. It’s a dream really to be able to come back home and play for the team I love so much,” Wheeler said.
“I’ve really missed it over the last three years … the last time I played was when we lost to Auckland in the 2015 semifinal.
“Obviously that wasn’t the result that I wanted to go out on and at that stage I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to be coming back.
“When the Japan thing came about it felt like it was the right time to try something new. I had been plugging away trying to reach the pinnacle and the dream, but it didn’t quite happen so when the opportunity came up to experience another culture and play some footy in Japan I took it.”
He was thankful that Tasman and New Zealand Rugby who allowed him an early release from his contract to take up with Suntory, plus the Highlanders who allowed him to come back and play two more years of Super Rugby despite living abroad.
He is still involved with the Highlanders, but in a different capacity. While he maintains his fitness by working alongside the Dunedin-based team his main role is with the commercial and marketing team, promoting the Highlanders brand, especially through the media and social media, an area he has worked in with considerable success and exposure over the past decade.
“It’s been a lot of fun … and it’s helping me figure out what I may want to do long-term, when I finally hang up the boots.”
Wheeler is well aware that he is joining a Mako team on a roll, having established themselves as one of the nation’s premier provincial sides in recent seasons.
“The team has been going really well over the past few years, but hopefully I can add a bit of something, I don’t know what, but I’ll do whatever the team needs,” he added.
He is also familiar with the fact that young Mako locks Quinten Strange and Pari Pari Parkinson had top seasons in 2018, both earning Super Rugby contracts, and will be hard to dislodge from their starting positions.
“Tasman have two pretty exciting young locks there now and hopefully they will be doing the business and I can just complement them, and push them at the same time, making sure they get the best out of themselves because they have huge potential to both maybe pull on the black jersey one day.
“I’m a pretty competitive guy and don’t like taking a backwards step but the reality is that I’m just here for this season and Quin and Pari will be around long term … but if they do need freshening up I’ll be ready to go.”
The spectre of Canterbury, who have denied the Mako Mitre 10 Cup titles over the past three seasons, looms large over Tasman’s camp, but Wheeler is confident Tasman can go all the way.
“Canterbury are like the Crusaders, they are just ruthless. They nail every bit of detail, don’t often miss a beat with their game. We have to take that mentality into the way we play.
“We have been up a bit up and down in the past and lacked the killer punch on the finals stage … Auckland showed last year that if you take it to Canterbury they are vulnerable and beatable.
“Fingers crossed we get to the pointy end of the season again and can have a decent crack at that bit of silverware that’s been so elusive.”
When Wheeler rejoins the Mako from his Tokyo base this year he will bring a new supporter north. He and wife Courtney are the proud parents of three-month-old Indie, one of three first-baby girls born to the Wheeler brothers – Joe, Ben and Sam – over the last year. “That was quite hard-case, especially for mum and dad (Cathy and Mark) who produced three boys to then get three girls for grandkids”, added Wheeler.
Despite the changes a newborn will bring to his life, he intends to see out his Japanese contract, “all things going well”, and provided it works out for his family.
“Courtney loves Japan, and you know what they say, ‘happy wife, happy life’. It’s great for families because you get to spend more time together there than you do back in NZ.
“We’ll play it year by year though. I’m just really looking forward to getting back to Tassie.”