Super Rugby Preview: Highlanders

Date published: February 9 2013

With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Highlanders!

With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Highlanders!

Last Year: 2012 was a good year for the Highlanders, who finished with a winning record in the competition largely thanks to a blistering start where they picked up seven wins out of their first nine matches. In fact, after four narrow victories over sides including the future champions the Chiefs and also the Crusaders, the Highlanders were top of the table. A brilliant 36-33 victory over the Cheetahs at the end of April was arguably the highlight of their campaign, because although victory followed against the Bulls a three-game losing streak in the final stretch killed off their play-off ambitions in a congested New Zealand conference, the 51-8 hammering they received from the Crusaders in Christchurch signalling the beginning of the end to a promising campaign.

This year: Recruitment of some wise older heads has given the Highlanders a stronger feel ahead of the new campaign, handing them an outside chance of making the play-offs. Hardening up their tight five with Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn will provide that extra niggle in the close matches, whilst they an exciting pair of young half-backs in the form of Aaron Smith and Colin Slade. Coach Jamie Joseph couldn't ask for a better start than taking on the champion Chiefs at home in their first game of the season. With the Cheetahs and then the Hurricanes set to visit Dunedin afterwards, another early run of results is possible.
Hosting the Reds, Brumbies and Sharks will give the Highlanders a crucial advantage over their potential playoff rivals too, meaning the fixture list is certainly in their favour.

Players to watch: Few captains come in more abrasive shapes or forms than Andrew Hore – a veteran whose high level of respect amongst his peers is well earned. The experience around him will only be strengthened by the inclusion of Woodcock and Thorn, compensating for the loss of All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson to Japan. Ma'a Nonu is the biggest recruit however and the All Black adds an attacking edge to the Highlanders midfield – a battering ram to make space for the potent back-three trio of Hosea Gear, Kade Poki and the vastly underrated Ben Smith. All in all, this is a strong squad.

Noteworthy signings: Tony Woodcock (Blues), Brad Thorn (Fukuoka Sanix Blues), Jason Emery (Manuwatu), Ma'a Nonu (Blues), Trent Renata (Waikato), Declan O'Donnell (Chiefs)

Noteworthy losses: Kurt Baker, Jimmy Cowan, James Haskell, Kendrick Lynn, Chris Noakes, Callum Retallick, Jason Rutledge, Adam Thomson.

Prospects: Promising. Keep all the older heads fit and the Highlanders are certainly capable of a playoff position – but going all the way appears to be a leap too far. Lessons will have been learned from the explosive start the Highlanders made last year before fading at the death, and the addition of Nonu in the centre adds a touch of class to proceedings. The key will be how Smith and Slade handle the pressure of big matches – both are continuing to mature and with Jimmy Cowan and Chris Noakes now departed, this is their chance. Based on a competitive front five unit and a convenient fixture list that will help them along the further the season progresses, don't be surprised if the Highlanders make a late charge for the wildcard places.

Week 1: Bye
22 February v Chiefs – Home
Week 3: Bye
9 March v Cheetahs – Home
15 March v Hurricanes – Home
22 March v Chiefs – Away
29 March v Reds – Home
5 April v Blues – Away
12 April v Brumbies – Home
20 April v Crusaders – Away
Week 11: Bye
4 May v Sharks – Home
11 May v Kings – Away
18 May v Bulls – Away
25 May v Force – Away
1 June v Blues – Home
Week 17: Bye
29 June v Crusaders – Home
6 July v Hurricanes – Away
12 July v Rebels – Away