THE 2018 season features the third coach in as many years for the Highlanders, who were led by Jamie Joseph in 2016, Tony Brown in 2017 and now another former All Black, Aaron Mauger, takes the reins.
Mauger, who played 47 Tests for New Zealand between 2001-07, cut his coaching teeth with Canterbury, the Crusaders and then Leicester Tigers before linking up with the Highlanders, who still boast a decent core of players from the club’s maiden 2015 Super Rugby title.
That unlikely triumph might have blown the club’s ‘underdog’ cover but a renowned team culture in the deep south has ensured the strong results have continued, with the Highlanders churning out back-to-back 11-4 regular seasons before falling in the semi-finals in 2016 and the quarterfinals last year.
Here’s our Super Rugby Spotlight on the Highlanders we countdown to the season opener between the Stormers and the Jaguares on February 18 AEDT.
We will run our eye over all five New Zealand clubs and how they’re shaping up in 2018 before turning our attention to the four Australian franchises.
READ MORE: Making the Blues great again
THE HIGHLANDERS SQUAD
Props: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Tyrel Lomax, Guy Millar, Aki Seiuli, Siate Tokolahi, Kalolo Tuiloma
Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon (co-captain), Greg Pleasants-Tate
Locks: Alex Ainley, Josh Dickson, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Pari Pari Parkinson
Loose forwards: Elliot Dixon, Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt, James Lentjes, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Dan Pryor, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock
Halfbacks: Kayne Hammington, Josh Renton, Aaron Smith
First five-eighths: Josh Ioane, Fletcher Smith, Lima Sopoaga
Centres: Matt Faddes, Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden
Wingers: Richard Buckman, Tevita Li, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Waisake Naholo, Thomas Umaga-Jensen
Fullbacks: Ben Smith (co-captain)
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THE OFF-SEASON INS AND OUTS
IN: Tyrel Lomax (Rebels), Kalolo Tuiloma (Counties Manukau), Pari Pari Parkinson (Tasman), Shannon Frizell (Tasman), Josh Ioane (Otago), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), Josh McKay (Canterbury), Tevita Nabura (Counties Manukau), Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Hawke’s Bay)
OUT: Siua Halanukonuka (Glasgow Warriors), Craig Millar (Sunwolves), Joe Wheeler (Suntory Sungoliath), Shane Christie (Tasman), Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Marty Banks (Benetton), Hayden Parker (Sunwolves), Jason Emery (Sunwolves), Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon), Patrick Osborne (Kubota Spears)
THE BEST XV
Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Richard Buckman, Rob Thompson, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown
There’s plenty of competition for one wing spot and in the centres where we’ve plumped for a Richard Buckman-Rob Thompson combination despite the former being listed as a winger.
Tevita Li faces stiff competition from namesake Tevita Nabura, who was impressive at the Brisbane Tens.
Elliot Dixon’s form dipped last season and we reckon the three Test All Black will have to settle for an impact role this season given Luke Whitelock and Liam Squire’s quality and Dillon Hunt’s rapid emergence.
The same goes for loose forward Shannon Frizell — the younger brother of NRL star Tyson — while lock Jackson Hemopo deserves regular starts after a breakout 2017 season.
There is likely to be plenty of rotation in the propping department where Rebels recruit Tyrel Lomax will compete with Tongan strongman Siate Tokolahi for a start.
THE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Melbourne Storm’s playmaking ‘spine’ of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and the now departed Cooper Cronk has long been credited for their remarkable, sustained run of success.
The Highlanders have been blessed with something similar in the two Smith’s, Ben and Aaron, and five-eighth Lima Sopoaga.
The latter is entering his final season in Dunedin before taking up a big money deal with London’s Wasps and the Highlanders will be determined to make the most of their championship window.
Their forward pack is perennially underrated and has plenty of depth while in Waisake Naholo they have one of the competition’s elite finishers.
The Highlanders also have the advantage of playing regularly under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium in front of a raucous, student heavy crowd.
THE REASONS FOR CONCERN
We simply don’t know how good a coach Aaron Mauger is yet.
Only 37-years-old, his only spell as a head coach at Leicester didn’t last long and he has some pretty big shoes to fill following on from Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown.
The departure of Malakai Fekitoa means they may lack punch and strike in midfield while the losses of club leaders Joe Wheeler, Shane Christie, Gareth Evans and Marty Banks are a potentially significant hit to the club’s unique culture.
Round 1: Bye
Round 2: Blues (home)
Round 3: Bye
Round 4: Stormers (home)
Round 5: Crusaders (home)
Round 6: Hurricanes (away)
Round 7: Chiefs (away)
Round 8: Bye
Round 9: Brumbies (home)
Round 10: Blues (away)
Round 11: Bulls (away)
Round 12: Sharks (away)
Round 13: Lions (home)
Round 14: Waratahs (away)
Round 15: Reds (away)
Round 16: Hurricanes (home)
Round 17: Chiefs (home)
Round 18: Crusaders (away)
Round 19: Rebels (home)
To win the New Zealand conference: $6
To win the title: $8
Third in the New Zealand conference.
Their no frills forward pack should give the rock stars in the backline enough quality ball and Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga provide a varied kicking game as good as any in the competition.
If their big names stay fit then they are a genuine title contender again.
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