Ahead of the 2017 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating. Next up, the Highlanders.
2015’s champions and last year’s semi-finalists are at the dawn of a new era with Tony Brown taking over the coaching reins from Jamie Joseph, who has left the Dunedin-based franchise to coach Japan.
Despite that alteration to their coaching staff, most of their first-choice players are still with the franchise so don’t expect much to change in the Highlanders’ approach to the game, with their free-flowing style of play set to enthrall crowds yet again as they hope to win back the title they surrendered to the Hurricanes last year.
Last Year: After their triumphant 2015 campaign, the Highlanders were the team everybody wanted to beat last year. It was always going to be difficult for them to match their achievements of 2015 but the men from Dunedin certainly gave it their best shot and eventuslly bowed out in the semi-finals where they lost to the Lions, who would finish as runners-up to the Hurricanes.
The Highlanders’ title defence started poorly when they suffered a 33-31 loss to the Blues in Auckland but they bounced back in the next round with a narrow 17-16 triumph over the Hurricanes in Dunedin. They continued in that vein by winning their next four matches, against the Lions (34-15) in Dunedin, Waratahs (30-26) in Sydney, Rebels (27-3) in Melbourne and another home win over the Western Force (32-20).
They then headed to Brisbane to take on the struggling Reds, who were winless at that stage, but were beaten 28-27 and then suffered a 15-14 loss against the Sharks in Dunedin in Round 9.
With the tournament heading towards its business end, there was a scramble for play-off places in the Australasian Conference. The Highlanders finished the league phase of the competition strongly by winning six out of their remaining seven matches with the only defeat suffered against eventual champions the Hurricanes (27-20) in Round 14.
This meant the Highlanders finished second in the New Zealand Conference – behind the Hurricanes – and secured one of the wildcard berths for the quarter-finals. It meant that they had to head to Canberra to face the Brumbies and they were made to work hard before claiming a 15-9 victory. Unfortunately, their reign as champions came to an end when they were blown away in the semi-finals by a determined Lions side – the Johannesburg side won that clash 42-30 in front of their home crowd at Ellis Park.
This Year: Although Brown is their new head coach, he is no stranger to the Highlanders enviroment after serving an apprenticeship as Joseph’s assistant from 2013 to 2016.
Like last year, the New Zealand Conference should be ultra competitive with the Highlanders expected to lead the charge alongside defending champions the Hurricanes.
Their campaign starts with two home derbies against the Chiefs and Crusaders and victories in those encounters should set them up nicely before they hit the road to take on the Hurricanes in their next matches.
After that, they head to Canberra to face the Brumbies before returning to Dunedin for clashes against the Rebels and Blues. With five of their first seven matches against New Zealand opposition, Brown faces a baptism of fire in his new role but their next match – against the Sunwolves in Invercargill – should be a bit easier before they face a tricky assignment in Cape Town against the Stormers.
The rest of the campaign will not be easy as four of their six remaining fixtures will be away matches with their only home games being against the Waratahs and Reds.
Key players: Co-captain Ben Smith‘s decision to reject overseas offers and stay in New Zealand was a tremendous boost for the Highlanders. Another player who will be crucial to the cause is fly-half Lima Sopoaga. With Aaron Cruden set to move abroad, Sopoaga will be hoping to keep first-choice All Blacks pivot Beauden Barrett on his toes with some inspired performances in a Highlanders jersey. In the forwards, All Black flanker Elliot Dixon is another player of whom much is expected as he has played consistently well over the past two seasons. His impressive form was rewarded with an All Blacks call up in 2016 and he will be hoping to continue that in a bid to become a permanent fixture in the world champions’ matchday squad.
Players to watch: After his off-field shenanigans, during the latter part of 2016, All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith‘s form took a massive dip. When on song, the 28-year-old is widely regarded as the game’s best number nine and he will be eager to hit the ground running in 2017. Another player who will be keen to make an impact is former Blues flyer Tevita Li, who follows in the footsteps of Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo in making the move from the Auckland-based outfit down south. Both those players became All Blacks after making that switch, something which Li will hoping to match with some solid performances. Up front, Liam Coltman will be hoping to continue where he left off in 2016 when his fine form earned him a Test cap on the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour.
Prospects: With most of 2016’s squad still intact, and Brown no stranger to the set-up, the Highlanders are once again serious contenders for the title. There’s plenty of talent and experience in their ranks which should see them through to the play-offs and from their anything is possible.
Players In: Guy Millar (Western Force), Siate Tokolahi (Chiefs), Josh Dickson (Otago), Kayne Hammington (Chiefs), Tevita Li (Blues)
Players Out: Brendon Edmonds (injured), Ross Geldenhuys (Kings), Josh Hohneck (Gloucester), Mark Reddish (Harlequins), Jamie Booth (Manawatu), Fumiaki Tanaka (Sunwolves), Te Aihe Toma (Bay of Plenty), Ryan Tongia (Bayonne), Jack Wilson (Bath)
Friday, 24 February v Chiefs (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 4 March v Crusaders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 11 March v Blues (tbc)
Saturday, 18 March v Hurricanes (tbc)
Saturday, 25 March v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, 31 March v Rebels (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 8 April v Blues (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Round 8: BYE
Saturday, 22 April v Sunwolves (Rugby Park, Invercargill)
Friday, 28 April v Stormers (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, 5 May v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 13 May v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 20 May v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, 27 May v Waratahs (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 31 June v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Round 16: BYE
Friday, 14 July v Reds (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)