Last season the Highlanders lost a pulsating semi-final to the Lions in South Africa after a difficult travel schedule. Their squad is full of quality players with plenty of match-winners,and they have a new head coach — the popular Tony Brown
NZ CONFERENCE: SECOND PLACE
The Highlanders won in Canberra for the first time in 10 years when they beat the Brumbies to make the semi-finals. But when the Crusaders fell to the Lions in Johannesburg, the Highlanders had to travel to South Africa where the Lions ended their hopes of back-to-back titles.
LUCK OF THE DRAW:
They start with not-to-be-missed home fixtures against the Chiefs and Crusaders, plus host the Blues at home before their first bye in round eight. The South Africa leg is in rounds 11 and 12 with a home match against the Reds to finish.
One of the Highlanders’ favourite sons, Tony Brown, steps up from assistant coach to head coach. He replaces Jamie Joseph, who is now Japan’s head coach. Brown says his coaching style is all about being innovative and smart, plus trying to get the best out of the players.
“What has happened over the last two or three years has been my style and that probably won’t change a lot,” Brown says. “There are obviously things that we want to improve on and things we have put in place to improve our game, but 90 to 95 per cent of our game will be similar.
“Every team going in to the competition wants to make the play-offs and obviously we will want to do that. Everything we are preparing for and the way we play the game is about us making the play-offs and having a crack at the title.”
The Highlanders have a top-class squad with an outstanding backline featuring Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne, plus a mobile, aggressive pack.
Brown says playing as a team is definitely their strength. “It doesn’t matter who puts on the jersey. Everyone who plays fronts up for us and we get the best out of our players. If you look at our team we have gone from having one All Black to eight All Blacks and that is an example of that.”
Brown has been particularly pleased with the progress shown by new tighthead prop Siate Tokolahi from Canterbury.
“We have been really impressed with Siate. He has come in and trained really well. He has fitted into our environment easily and we are hoping for a good season from him after losing a couple of props last year.”
One late enforced change in the backline sees first-five Marty Banks back in the team after putting his contract with Italy’s Benetton Treviso on hold, following another season-ending knee injury to Hayden Parker.
“Marty has been with us two years now so when Hayden fell over we put out an SOS call and luckily enough he was able to organise his contract to do another Super Rugby season,” Brown says. “For the Highlanders, it is a massive win to get someone of that experience to come in as one of our three first-fives.”
Forwards: Guy Millar, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Aki Seiuli.
Backs: Kayne Hammington, Tevita Li, Josh Renton.
Forwards: Brendon Edmonds, Ross Geldenhuys, Josh Hohneck, Mark Reddish.
Backs: Jamie Booth, Fumiaki Tanaka, Te Aihe Toma, Ryan Tongia, Jack Wilson.
The Highlanders are rated third favourites at the TAB and certainly will be top contenders to make the final. If they can nail a home semi, then a repeat of their 2015 championship is likely.
Forwards: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Guy Millar, Siate Tokolahi, Aki Seiuli, Craig Millar, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Alex Ainley, Josh Dickson, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Gareth Evans, Dan Pryor, Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon.
Backs: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Josh Renton, Lima Sopoaga, Marty Banks, Fletcher Smith, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne, Tevita Li,Jason Emery, Ben Smith.