Super Rugby Review: Highlanders

Date published: August 1 2016

With the Super Rugby finalists now decided we take a look at the teams who missed out on this week's fixture. Next up, it's the Highlanders.

Although the 2015 champions couldn't secure back-to-back tournament victories, they went close to repeating that feat but came up short against a determined Lions outfit in their semi-final in Johannesburg at the weekend.

Like last year, the Highlanders' charge was led by a core group of experienced players with co-captain Ben Smith, Elliot Dixon, Aaron Smith, Ash Dixon, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo and to a lesser extent Malakai Fekitoa at the forefront at the men from Dunedin's challenge.

New signings Luke Whitelock and Liam Squire, who joined from the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively, also made a big impact as well as rookie utility back Matt Faddes, who fitted in seamlessly into the champions' set-up.

Before the start of the campaign, it was confirmed that head coach Jamie Joseph would take over the role as Japan's new boss at the end of the Super Rugby season but that news didn't have an impact on the team's performances and they were amongst the front-runners in the New Zealand Conference throughout the season.

Midway through the campaign, Joseph's assistant, Tony Brown, was named as his replacement for the 2017 season which means there should be some continuity in their approach to the game, but Brown will only be in charge for one season as he will also head to Japan in 2018 to take up a role alongside Joseph with the Brave Blossoms.

As far as the season goes, the Highlanders were on the wrong end of a 33-31 result against the Blues in their opener in Auckland. They bounced back with a narrow win at home against the Hurricanes and won their next four matches before suffering a surprise defeat to a struggling Reds side in Brisbane in Round Seven.

The Highlanders' poor form continued as they lost their next match, against the Sharks in Dunedin, but they returned to the victory trail against the Brumbies the following weekend.

They then beat the Crusaders but lost their Round 14 clash away to the Hurricanes which meant they couldn't afford a loss in their last three matches if they wanted to reach the play-offs.

The Highlanders won the first two of those games comfortably, against the Kings and Jaguares, and then beat the Chiefs in Dunedin, which gave them a higher seeding than the men from Hamilton in the quarter-finals and meant they had to travel to Canberra to face the Brumbies.

They battled to a victory over the Australian Conference winners and then made the long trek to Johannesburg to take on the Lions at the weekend. South Africa's leading team blew them away with their fast-paced style and although the Highlanders put up a brave fight, they were always playing catch-up as their hosts raced into a 14-point half-time lead before eventually claiming a 42-30 victory.

Best player: After impressing in the victorious 2015 campaign, there was pressure on Elliot Dixon to continue with his fine form in 2016. He did just that and led the Highlanders' forward assault with several superb performances. His brilliant and uncompromising form was rewarded with an All Blacks call-up and Test debut against Wales in June. He didn't let up when returning to his franchise, after the break for the June Tests, and played a leading role in their run to the semi-finals.