New era of success beckons
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2019 – TEAM BY TEAM: In the seventh instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the Highlanders.
When former head coach Jamie Joseph took charge of the Highlanders towards the end of 2010, he revolutionised the way in which the Dunedin-based franchise operated.
He was joining a battling side that was fielding calls from some quarters for their culling from the competition as a result of not reaching the play-offs since 2002, posting a win average of just three matches per season in the three years preceding his arrival, and generally being one of the more dull, incapable teams in the competition.
However, during his six-year tenure, Joseph – with the help of assistant Tony Brown – transformed them into a team that claimed their maiden Super Rugby title in 2015, took them to the play-offs in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000, and made them one of the most skilled and exciting franchises to watch in the Southern Hemisphere.
He did so by vastly improving the chemistry within the squad and instilling his troops with an unquantifiable amount of self-belief.
Those attributes, combined with an insatiable hunger for gritty defence and an encouragement to play instinctive rugby with ball in hand, made the Highlanders a lethal prospect under the tutelage of Joseph.
Those qualities he introduced has laid the foundation for a golden era of Highlanders rugby that the southern men are still basking in since his departure for Japan in 2016.
Even with Brown and now Aaron Mauger coming on board as head coaches, the Highlanders have set a franchise record for most consecutive yearly play-off appearances and have built on their reputation as a side that thrives off their underdog status through rock-solid defence and innovative, off-the-cuff style of offence.
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However, every golden era must come to an end, and one of the challenges facing second-year coach Mauger is that the Highlanders look to be nearing that point heading into 2019.
No doubt they’ll once again prove to be one of the title frontrunners this year, as anything less than a quarterfinal appearance will be deemed to be a significant failure.
What Mauger needs to be wary of, though, is the expected post-World Cup exodus of the long-time playing personnel that has formed the core of the Highlanders squad since 2011.
Malakai Fekitoa and Lima Sopoaga were two of the side’s title-winning All Blacks who have already left for Europe, while franchise legend Ben Smith has signed a seven-month deal with French franchise Pau.
Rumours persist of World Cup winners Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo moving overseas after 2019, while other key players whose contracts expire at the end of this year include All Blacks Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, Liam Coltman, co-captain Ash Dixon, Richard Buckman and Tom Franklin.
While the loss of that much talent and experience from Mauger’s squad could make life from 2020 daunting for him, there remains a silver lining.
A clear out of established names and familiar faces paves the way for Mauger, whose coaching career is still in its infancy, to produce his own golden era at the helm of the Highlanders.
And 2019 could be the year of transition from one era to another.
His transfer activity during the off-season indicates that he’s preparing for the future by bringing in a raft of fresh, new faces both on and off the field.
Headlining the new recruits is returning cult hero Marty Banks.
The 29-year-old is back in Dunedin after spells in Italy and Japan to fill the void left by Sopoaga and new Hurricanes playmaker Fletcher Smith, and is widely expected to follow on from his outstanding campaign with the side in 2017.
North Harbour pivot Bryn Gatland will contest with Banks and Josh Ioane for the vacant starting first-five spot, as he moves south from the Blues in search of more game time and better results.
Waikato props Josh Iosefa-Scott and Ayden Johnstone impressed for the Mooloos in their Mitre 10 Cup Championship-winning campaign last year.
At the age of 22, both men are babies by front row standards and have long professional careers ahead of them.
Joining them in the front row is former Reds prop Sef Fa’agase and Tasman hooker Ray Niuia, while promising loose forward Marino Mikaele-Tu’u returns to the side after debuting as an injury replacement in 2018.
Lock Jack Whetton, son of 58-test All Black Gary, returns to Super Rugby after making his debut with the Brumbies five years ago.
He brings with him lots of experience from England and France, which should offset the loss of 37-year-old Alex Ainley.
19-year-old halfback Folau Fakatava is relatively unknown outside of Hawke’s Bay, but Mauger has described the former schoolboy star as someone who has “just got game”, and certainly looks to be one for the future.
Off the field, former England and British and Irish Lions midfielder Riki Flutey has joined the franchise as a skills coach, adding to the depth of experience within the Highlanders’ coaching staff.
Expect these new signings to improve the quality already evident in the squad.
Whether it be seasoned veterans such as the Smith’s, Naholo, and Squire, the exciting young talent of Josh McKay, Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Tyrel Lomax, or players looking to build on ground-breaking campaigns in 2018 like Rob Thompson, Jackson Hemopo and Shannon Frizell, there’s plenty of talent to go around.
All things considered, there’s no reason why the host of departing veterans can’t expect a deserved send-off in what’s likely to be their swansong season.
It will be a tough ask in a demanding New Zealand conference, but the next generation of Highlanders should be determined to kick-start their own era of success under the guidance of Mauger.
New Zealand Conference Placing: 4th
Player of the Year: Waisake Naholo
Rookie of the Year: Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
Best Signing: Marty Banks
Breakout Player: Josh McKay
In: Sef Fa’agase (Reds), Josh Iosefa-Scott (Waikato), Ayden Johstone (Waikato), Ray Niuia (Tasman), Jack Whetton (Auckland), Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Hawke’s Bay), Folau Fakatava (Hawke’s Bay), Marty Banks (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Bryn Gatland (Blues)
Out: Guy Millar (Biarritz), Aki Seiuli (injured), Kalolo Tuiloma (injured), Greg Pleasants-Tate (released), Alex Ainley (released), Dan Pryor (Sunwolves), Josh Renton (Zebre), Fletcher Smith (Hurricanes), Lima Sopoaga (Wasps)
Forwards: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ray Niuia, Sef Fa’agase, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Tyrel Lomax, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Pari Pari Parkinson, Jack Whetton, Elliot Dixon, Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u Luke Whitelock
Backs: Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith, Marty Banks, Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass
* Don’t miss the rest of the New Zealand teams and Australian conference.