The Highlanders will enter the Vodacom Super Rugby Aotearoa season as the underdogs but will be aware that it gives them little to lose, writes DYLAN JACK.
When the regular Super Rugby season was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Highlanders were rooted to the bottom of the New Zealand conference with just one win and seven points from their opening six matches. They trailed the fourth-placed Hurricanes by 10 points and the conference-leading Crusaders by 16 points – meaning that they faced a massive battle to qualify for the playoffs.
As has previously been pointed out – the Highlanders’ struggles are largely due to the turnover in both the coaching and playing staff. Since their title-winning season in 2015, the Highlanders lost head coach Jamie Joseph and assistant coach Scott McLeod, while Tony Brown also departed for a short period before returning from Japan this year.
2015’s top points-scorer Lima Sopoaga and top try-scorer Waisake Naholo have both departed for the northern hemisphere and have been followed by Nasi Manu, Josh Hohneck, Elliot Dixon, Richard Buckman, Tom Franklin, Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire, Matt Faddes, Tevita Li, Malakai Fekitoa, Marty Banks and last but certainly not least Ben Smith.
Meanwhile, promising loosehead Tyrel Lomax also sealed a switch to the Hurricanes for personal reasons to take the tally up to 15 senior players that departed the franchise.
The Highlanders did very well to retain both hooker Liam Coltman and scrumhalf Aaron Smith but were still left short of quality and experience in crucial areas of the field. This clearly impacted the team’s on-field performances as their mistakes have been ruthlessly punished and as reported by The Chase Rugby, they have conceded 30 points per game for the first time since the lows of 2013.
However, the team will be looking to start fresh and would have taken heart from their performances against the Brumbies and Crusaders. Tony Brown is still part of the coaching staff alongside head coach Aaron Mauger and the two will need time to rebuild the cohesion in the squad.
Highlanders fans will be cautiously optimistic after the team was able to surprisingly sign former All Blacks wing Nehe Milner-Skudder. The TBC year old joins after a move to Top 14 side Toulon fell through due to his long-term struggles with a shoulder injury. That same injury has kept him out of the opening round of action as he continues to regain fitness, but he will add plenty to the team once he is back on the field.
Mauger also seems to have altered his plans with the backline sightly. In the regular season, the Highlanders opted for a twin-playmaker approach by naming Mitch Hunt at flyhalf and Josh Ioane at inside centre which had mixed results. For the opening match against the Chiefs, Mauger has opted to back Ioane in his more natural position at flyhalf and shift Hunt to add more experience to the back three.
When Milner-Skudder does return from injury, the Highlanders will hope that both he and Hunt will be able to take out the defensive errors from the back three which – as evidenced by their loss to the Sharks – has struggled when counter-attacked and put under the high ball.
While the Highlanders have shown that they have the capability to drag any team into an arm-wrestle, it is difficult to see them putting on a serious challenge for silverware this year.
13 June: vs Chiefs, Forsyth Barr Stadium
27 June: vs Blues, Eden Park
4 July: vs Crusaders, Forsyth Barr Stadium
12 July: vs Hurricanes, Sky Stadium
19 July: vs Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
2 August: vs Blues, Forsyth Barr Stadium
9 August: vs Crusaders, Orangetheory Stadium
15 August: vs Hurricanes, Forsyth Barr Stadium
Squad: Ash Dixon, Liam Coltman, Ricky Jackson, Ethan de Groot, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Jack Whetton, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Shannon Frizel, Dillon Hunt, Zane Kapeli, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Sione Misiloi, Jesse Parete, Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith, Bryn Gatland, Mitchell Hunt, Josh Ioane, Michael Collins, Ngane Punivai, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Scott Gregory, Chris Kuridrani, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Jona Nareki, Connor Garden-Bachop, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert, Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Photo: Getty Images