With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Highlanders.
A play-off spot last season and lots of high points along the way, both as a team and individually. Now the question is whether the Highlanders can build in 2015 and make the next step up as a team under head coach Jamie Joseph.
Last year: All in all a positive season for the Highlanders as the play-offs would have been an immediate goal, which they achieved. Unfortunately they could not repeat their Round 11 heroics in Durban in their qualifying final as they went down 31-27 in another spirited performance, but much can be taken going forward from 2014. The scourge of the Sharks was Malakai Fekitoa and his year was surely the main highlight in Dunedin and possibly New Zealand, with 7 tries, 171 carries, 20 clean breaks, 65 defenders beaten just a handful of his stats. Round 15’s home defeat to the Crusaders was one frustrating game that could have led to the team possibly going on to take the New Zealand conference had wing Patrick Osborne not been denied an 80th minute try in the corner, but in the end other tight losses were possibly their undoing as they ended third in the local table and sixth overall before that defeat at the Sharks brought the curtain down on a decent year.
This year: They have lost a great deal of experience in the shape of Brad Thorn, Josh Bekhuis, Jarrad Hoeata and Chris King but coach Joseph will have been impressed by the form of the likes of Ross Geldenhuys, Alex Ainley and Waisake Naholo in the ITM Cup. Marty Banks will hope to prove to the ‘Canes they were wrong to let him go and will be an able deputy to Lima Sopoaga at fly-half while it will be intriguing to see how Fekitoa copes in his second season. They start with a bye week before five of their first six games are scheduled on home soil so getting off on the right foot is going to be critical, not least because they end the campaign with six games away from Forsyth Barr Stadium. A victory in their first match, up against the Crusaders in Dunedin, would be an ideal tonic to start the year before they host the Reds and then a trip to the Chiefs precedes home games against the Waratahs, Hurricanes and Stormers so one can see why Joseph is wary of their draw and how vital a strong opening will be. If they can do that then confidence and momentum will be with them in their quest for the play-offs.
Key players: Of course the attacking threat of Malakai Fekitoa is going to be key to the Highlanders’ season while the tempo scrum-half Aaron Smith brings to their game alongside Lima Sopoaga cannot be underplayed. The spine of the team is extremely strong in this trio being backed up by Liam Coltman, Nasi Manu and Ben Smith, who are all outstanding players that must consistently come to the party in 2015. Full-back Smith is a joy to watch in full flow and, like his namesake, is key to the fast brand the Highlanders want to play. Watch him go.
Players to watch: An injury free campaign will be on the wish-list for flank John Hardie while Shane Christie is looking to back up his form of last season in 2015. Alongside Manu, these two together may prove to be the missing ingredient for the Highlanders while do not underestimate the role Shaun Treeby plays in midfield. His solidity and carries off his half-backs’ passes helped create opportunities for Fekitoa and if this can click once again, the likes of Naholo, Smith, Richard Buckman and Patrick Osborne will be given try-scoring chances.
Prospects: Possibly the strongest bet to challenge New Zealand’s top duo, the Chiefs and Crusaders, this season. As mentioned, their season start will be vital if they are to challenge and it’s worth noting that in South Africa they face the Lions and Cheetahs so it could be a lot worse for Joseph, who is possibly playing down the chance they have this season. We think they will sneak into the play-off places.
Ins and outs:
In: Brendon Edmonds (Hurricanes), Ross Geldenhuys (Tasman), Josh Hohneck (Chiefs), Pingi Tala’apitaga (Bay of Plenty), Ash Dixon (Hurricanes), Alex Ainley (Tasman), Mark Reddish (Hurricanes), Dan Pryor (Northland), Marty Banks (Hurricanes), Waisake Naholo (Taranaki).