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Super Rugby Preview: Highlanders

Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 15 teams participating. Next up, it’s the Highlanders.

After four years of success under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, it is all change for the Dunedin-based outfit with Aaron Mauger taking the reins. The former New Zealand centre is a highly-rated coach but was booted from the head honcho’s role at Leicester Tigers.

Leicester’s issues were far more deep-rooted than Mauger, however, and home comforts could appeal to the 37-year-old, who will no doubt enjoy working with an audience which may well be more receptive to his ideas.

Last year: 2017 was another solid season for the Highlanders as they qualified for the quarter-finals, while also achieving a victory over the British and Irish Lions.

11 wins in 15 matches – exactly the same record as in 2016 – represented a good return for Brown’s men as the Highlanders, alongside their countrymen, dominated the competition. They were outclassed in the last eight, though, as eventual champions Crusaders went away with a 17-0 victory at a rain-sodden AMI Stadium.

‘Consistency’ has been the watchword under Joseph and Brown over the past four campaigns and, despite the disappointing nature of their exit from the tournament, it was still another productive year.

This year: The pressure now falls on a recently retired, ex-All Blacks centre to match, or even eclipse, the performance of the previous two bosses. He has the tools in the playing staff and has gained some valuable experience, both in New Zealand and abroad, but it is a big task for a reasonably young coach.

Mauger has been always been an excellent thinker of the game, however, and has the added benefit of a kind fixture list with the Highlanders starting with three successive home games against the Blues, Stormers and Crusaders. Should they get off to a good start and dust off any cobwebs that may be lingering from pre-season, the South Islanders should make another push for the play-offs.

It will once again depend on how they fare in the inter-provincial derbies against their ‘local’ rivals, but the Highlanders ended the 2017 regular season as the form team, having emerged triumphant in 10 of their last 11 games, so they will hope that continues at the start of 2018.

Key players: The Highlanders used to be a side that had workmanlike, solid professionals but that perception has well and truly been altered now, with the presence of Liam Squire and the two Smiths, Aaron and Ben.

There are others to choose from too, who have received plenty of international recognition, but those are arguably the three main protagonists if the Dunedin outfit are to be successful this season. Captain Ben Smith, in particular, will want a far more productive campaign after struggling with concussion and duly taking a sabbatical over the latter part of the year.

Aaron Smith is quite simply the best scrum-half in the world while Squire has become a crucial part of the All Blacks squad and is a superb athlete in that back-row. If those three fire then so will the Highlanders.

Players to watch: Following Marty Banks’ departure, they do not have a huge amount of depth or experience in the pivot position, so there will be expectation on Lima Sopoaga to have an influential 2018. The New Zealand fly-half shocked many when he signed for Wasps, forgoing any potential involvement in the All Blacks set-up for the foreseeable future, and it is well worth watching how he responds to his final season in Dunedin.

Should Sopoaga thrive then that could allow Thomas Umaga-Jensen to impress. The back three player, who has also regularly featured at centre, is another superb prospect and was excellent for Wellington during their Mitre 10 Cup campaign. He also comes from some fairly impressive rugby stock, with Tana – the former All Black legend and current Blues head coach – his uncle, so there will undoubtedly be pressure to see whether Umaga-Jensen lives up to the name.

Prospects: It all depends on how quickly Mauger settles but there is no other reason to query why they can’t be successful in 2018. Despite the departure of Malakai Fekitoa, the Highlanders’ squad remains strong and, if Ben Smith finds his best form after a spell out, then their supporters should get excited for the coming season. The Hurricanes and Crusaders probably remain favourites but, in one-off games, who knows?

Players in: Tyrel Lomax (Rebels), Kalolo Tuiloma, Tevita Nabura (both Counties Manukau), Pari Pari Parkinson, Shannon Frizell (both Tasman), Josh Ioane (Otago), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), Josh McKay (Canterbury)

Players out: Sione Halanukonuka (Glasgow Warriors), Craig Millar, Hayden Parker (both Sunwolves), Sekonaia Pole (Otago), Adrian Smith (North Harbour), Joe Wheeler (Suntory Sungoliath), Shane Christie (Tasman), Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Tupou Sopoaga (Southland), Marty Banks (Benetton), Jason Emery (Manawatu), Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon), Patrick Osborne (Kubota Spears)


Round One: Bye
Friday, February 23 v Blues (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Round Three: Bye
Friday, March 9 v Stormers (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, March 17 v Crusaders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, March 24 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Friday, March 30 v Chiefs (FMG Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Round Eight: Bye
Saturday, 14 April v Brumbies (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, April 20 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 28 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 5 v Sharks (Kings Park Stadium, Durban)
Saturday, May 12 v Lions (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, May 19 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, May 26 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, June 1 v Hurricanes (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, June 30 v Chiefs (ANZ Stadium, Suva, Fiji)
Friday, July 6 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, July 14 v Rebels (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)



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