New coach Aaron Mauger is inheriting a side shorn of some of its best talent but one that will still be dangerous.
THE HIGHLANDERS LOOK TO HAVE THE HONEST TOIL THEY WILL NEED UP FRONT BUT DAVID AGNEW WONDERS WHETHER THEY HAVE THE CLASS, EXPERIENCE AND DEPTH IN THEIR BACK DIVISION TO BE A SERIOUS CHALLENGER THIS YEAR.
GOLDEN ERA STANDING ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE
An Otago or Southland rugby optimist may heartily disagree but this current golden era of Highlanders rugby is teetering and one way is invariably down.
Looking at the squad, such concerns shouldn’t present themselves but the brand new coaching panel including rookie Aaron Mauger has either been tossed a hospital pass or a warmish seat.
A slow burn took place under Jamie Joseph who eventually cracked the code and made the perennial underachievers champions after more than a decade of lag. Throw in a caretaker year from Tony Brown and the new panel have been handed a cherished legacy.
Mauger has inherited the nuts and bolts of a team that has had more than a taste of success in recent years but he finds himself as the greatest unknown leading into 2018.
By contemporary standards his apprenticeship has been extremely short and reasonably sweet, but he will be the better for having Mark Hammett on his hip.
What exactly is Mauger inheriting? The roster is still peppered with class but many have struggled to get through a whole Super Rugby campaign and there is a huge and increasing reliance on Aaron Smith.
Decimated by injury throughout 2017, the Highlanders displayed their greatest attributes time and time again, their defensive structures under Scott McLeod were industry-leading and their defensive ethic a Highlanders given.
The innovative and expansive attack from 2015-2016 was reined in a few notches yet, they were fifth of 18 for points scored and had the absolute measure of the South African and Australian teams.
With the squad largely intact, Mauger’s player inventory has been boosted further with a raft of young talent in the forward pack that offsets the greying element.
Set-piece will again be a bankable commodity, defence shouldn’t waiver but the question remains whether they have enough firepower in the backline to win enough big games.
SCRAPING THE BARREL FOR BACKS
Death, taxes and injuries during the Super Rugby season are all unavoidable. Using this solid and sound logic, someone from the Highlanders backline will fall foul during the protracted draw and herein lies the worry.
Fully fit and firing, the A-backline has a healthy look of menace to opposition, but a layer below the glossy exterior is a back unit lacking experience and recent form.
The midfield is most concerning and Malakai Fekitoa’s former centre jersey will be the hardest to fill.
Matt Faddes’ stagnant and disjointed 2017 was a faint shadow on his breakout 2016 and he’s joined by second-five Rob Thompson who also hasn’t pushed on from his title-winning form in 2015.
Youth in the squad is a necessary double-edged sword but can the fresher faces step up when/if the front liners pull up lame?
Seven of the 17 backs selected in Mauger’s squad [including four debutantes] are yet to break double figures for Super Rugby games and firstfive deputy Fletcher Smith has notched only 10.
Forever a side that enjoyed parity in the front eight, the Highlanders of the 90s and of late have been blessed with outstanding and unique backs. However, with the rate of attrition sitting where it does nowadays, the ability of the Highlanders to consistently score more points than the opposition could be compromised by their lack of backline depth.
PACK MAKE-UP A THING OF BEAUTY
Even in the heat of Super Rugby, the game is still won up front and the Highlanders have given themselves the best chance with a pack for all seasons.
There’s impact from new signings, the growing presence of All Blacks but, importantly, the team is built on the sturdiest of bases.
A cursory scan across the 21 chosen by the new coaching panel highlights invaluable continuity from recent seasons where the set-piece, defence and breakdown work have been redeeming features.
It is almost a given that the Highlanders will win their own ball and a bit of the enemy’s.
The difference in 2018? Workhorses are joined by more young broncos that give this squad a greater element of balance to attack from all facets. Among the new signings that have contributed to the increased diversity, Tyrel Lomax is part of the new breed of props who are upping their running metres and scattering more bodies all while performing their chores.
Locks Shannon Frizell and Pari Pari Parkinson have proved themselves in the provincial game and offset the steady hands of Thomas Franklin and Alex Ainley in the second row with their dynamism.
But, they’ll have to get past Jackson Hemopo first who shone for the Maori All Blacks on their end-of-year-tour and was the player of the match against Canada.
The loose department is in essence the quintessential Kiwi template and Luke Whitelock provides the binder for Liam Squire’s emerging wide running and tackling strengths.
Elliot Dixon is due a renascent campaign while a veritable team of tireless open sides complete the puzzle. Whatever the job, the Highlanders have the right men available.