Super Rugby Preview: Highlanders

Date published: February 24 2016

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Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. And finally, the Highlanders.

First-time champions in 2015, the Highlanders excited the watching masses around the world as they edged the Hurricanes to glory last season.

Now comes the difficult part; backing up the title-winning campaign when every team in the 2016 competition will be targeting their scalp. They have the personnel and coaches to do just that and their passionate following at Forsyth Barr Stadium is another string to their bow.

Last year: Their best year to date. The Highlanders recorded eleven wins in the regular-season before beating the Chiefs in the Qualifiers and then Waratahs (away) in the Semi-Finals. It all came down to a trip to Wellington in the final where the Highlanders came out on top, beating a superb Hurricanes outfit 21-14 thanks to Elliot Dixon and Waisake Naholo's tries and the boots of Lima Sopoaga and Marty Banks.

Yes they had star men such as Naholo, the Smiths, Malakai Fekitoa, who were all later involved in New Zealand's World Cup win, but it was the so-called 'unknowns' in the pack that deserve a lot of credit. This was a real collective performance in 2015 as players like Brendon Edmonds, Liam Coltman, Alex Ainley, Gareth Evans and many others offered much amidst an unrivalled team spirit that dug them out of some holes.

A special mention has to go to Naholo though, who finished with the most tries (13) and clean breaks (33) in the competition. He also made 187 carries, just behind Ben Smith (188). Sopoaga meanwhile topped the points standings on 191 in a wonderful year for the Dunedin outfit.

This year: No longer an underdog, for the first time the Highlanders go into this season with a champions tag around their neck. How they will cope with that in combination with facing up to a difficult fixture list will be the big ask, with head coach Jamie Joseph moving on at the end of the season also a subplot that could work for or against them. His players will of course want to send him off with a title.

In many respects they are stronger than last season as young players are a year older while they have recruited pretty well, especially in the back-row. It's all about keeping their game fresh and not becoming predictable in 2016 which we don't think will be an issue with such quality in their ranks. Another factor will be keeping their stars fit as lose Aaron or Ben Smith and their arsenal is massively depleted.

It's a difficult start to the season as a trip to Eden Park kicks things off before they host the Hurricanes and then Lions in their first three games. Then it's off to Sydney before Melbourne, with the Rebels a real threat in 2016 so coming out of the blocks firing is a must.

Key players: Last season's champions will need Aaron Smith, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith to replicate their 2015 form if they are to keep their hands on the Super Rugby prize. All three were outstanding in that title-winning campaign with Smith's dynamism at the base coupled by Naholo and full-back Smith's devastating running threat causing so many teams problems. So often this trio created blistering tries as they made the right, often brave, decisions that turned games. Elliot Dixon will be another looking for a strong year in blue and yellow.

Players to watch: The loss of Richard Buckman to injury is unquestionably a setback to the Highlanders but in Rob Thompson they possess a decent replacement at number 12. However, their first team announcement sees the Highlanders plump for Teihorangi Walden in the middle of Sopoaga and Fekitoa so with uncertainty around this spot, it's worth monitoring. Also keep an eye on the athlete that is Liam Squire at number eight as his arrival from the Chiefs helps cover over Nasi Manu's departure. Shane Christie is also a real leader on the flank.

Prospects: Definite challengers for silverware as while teams will be gunning for them in this Australasian conference, 2015's title win will have given them plenty of confidence as a group. We can see their closest challengers being the Hurricanes and Brumbies this season.

Players in: Siua Halanukonuka (Tasman), Luke Whitelock (Crusaders), Liam Squire (Chiefs), Matt Faddes (Otago), Rob Thompson (Canterbury)

Players out: Ma'afu Fia (Ospreys), Kane Hames (Tasman), Pingi Tala'apitaga (Bay of Plenty), Jackson Hemopo (wider training group), Joe Latta (Gloucester), John Hardie (Edinburgh), Nasi Manu (Edinburgh), Scott Eade (Southland), Fumiaki Tanaka (wider training group), Shaun Treeby (Wellington), Trent Renata (Tasman), Kurt Baker (Taranaki)

Fixtures:

Friday, 26 February v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, 5 March v Hurricanes (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 12 March v Lions (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, 18 March v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, 26 March v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, 1 April v Force (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 9 April v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Round 8: BYE
Friday, 22 April v Sharks (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 30 April v Brumbies (Rugby Park, Invercargill)
Saturday, 7 May v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, 13 May v Crusaders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Round 13: BYE
Friday, 27 May v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, 2 July v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, 9 July v Jaguares (Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, 16 July v Chiefs (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)

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