Planet Rugby

Super Rugby Preview: Highlanders

10th February 2014 07:06

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jason emery highlanders

Tough year: Jason Emery

Last season's biggest flop, the Highlanders have refreshed their squad and will be hoping for better fortunes in 2014 despite a loss of many high-profile names.

Last Year: Oh boy, the less said about this the better.

The Highlanders output in 2013 is probably best described in numbers. 13 losses from 16 matches, 55 tries conceded (the most in the New Zealand Conference), a points difference of -122 and a 14th-placed finish overall with only the Kings below them.

Except here's the thing; the Highlanders entertained us.

Sure their play was erratic at best but they produced some outstanding attacking rugby - Ben Smith even scooped our Try of the Year award and who can forget this bit of skill from Tamati Ellison:

The problem was on the other side of the ball, where their defence and energy levels just weren't up to standard with the competition's best sides.

You could argue there was also a lack of effort and desire from a squad packed full of All Blacks and talent that failed under Jamie Joseph to produce anything credible. It took the Highlanders until Round 11 to even win a game, before going on to win three of their last eight matches.

When you look at the names in last year's squad - Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Hosea Gear, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Jamie Mackintosh, Andrew Hore, Colin Slade, Tamati Ellison - there's just no way the Highlanders should have finished so far down the log.

This Year: Of that list of names above, only the two Smiths remain. Yes, the Highlanders might have been ineffective last year (Nonu especially) but losing that much talent surely can't mean the Highlanders will be a better side.

In total 18 players have left the squad, with 10 coming in, toeing the line with what Aaron Smith said last week when he mentioned a tighter, hard-working group.

Only one of the new recruits is an international - Argentinean prop Mátias Díaz - with Willie Ripia asked to fill the gap at fly-half left by Slade following his move back to the Crusaders and will fight it out with Hayden Parker and Liam Sopoaga.

Losing Buxton Popoali'i to a heart operation deprives the Highlanders of options on the wing, where Patrick Osborne has come in from the Chiefs but Kade Poki and Gear are gone.

Having a no-name squad isn't a bad thing; it creates unity and an us-against-the-world mentality that might serve the Highlanders better than when their star-studded unit flopped. But it's difficult to see where the turnaround will come from.

Joseph's team will have to play the Sharks and Stormers away from home along with the Reds and Waratahs, not to mention playing in a conference where they Chiefs and Crusaders are gunning for the title with the Blues not far behind.

Key Players:

Even with the prestigious talent of Ben Smith in the squad, the outlook doesn't look great. That said, the All Blacks wing was outstanding in 2013 for franchise and country, breaking the try-scoring record in The Rugby Championship and going from strength to strength. It's down to the Highlanders' pack to create the platform for him to shine.

Oddly for a squad that looks weak in most areas the Highlanders are extra strong at scrum-half, where Aaron Smith will again fend off the challenge of impressive Japanese number nine Fumiaki Tanaka. The legendary Brad Thorn is still going in the second row and should combine well with Jarrad Hoeata.

Noteworthy Signings: Mátias Díaz (Teqüe), Kane Hames (Bay of Plenty), Tom Franklin (Otago), Shane Christie (Crusaders), Gareth Evans (Otago), Willie Ripia (Bay of Plenty), Malakai Fekitoa (Blues), Winston Stanley (Force), Patrick Osborne (Chiefs), Kurt Baker (Taranaki)

Noteworthy Losses: Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Hosea Gear, Jamie Mackintosh, Andrew Hore, Colin Slade, Tamati Ellison, Bronson Murray, Jason Rutledge, Tim Boys, Mose Tuiali'i, Declan O'Donnell, Trent Renata

Prospects:

Similar to last year, the expectation is for the Highlanders the battle it out with the Hurricanes at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference. Any chance of making the play-offs, based on squad outgoings and last year's dire run, seem very remote. Bottom three.

Fixtures:

Feb 22: v Blues, home
March 1: v Chiefs, away
Week 3: Bye
March 15: v Force, home
March 21: v Hurricanes, home
March 29: v Blues, away
April 4: v Rebels, home
April 11: v Bulls, home
Week 10: Bye
April 25: v Sharks, away
May 3: v Stormers, away
May 10: v Lions, home
May 16: v Hurricanes, away
May 24: v Crusaders, home
May 30: v Reds, away
June 27: v Chiefs, home
July 6: Waratahs, away
July 12: v Crusaders, away

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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