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.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

AARON MAUGER

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