Defying the odds is part of the Highlanders’ DNA but new head coach Tony Brown will add innovation to the mix as the southerners prepare to take on the rest of the country.
It is almost common for Highlanders players to acknowledge underdog status at the start of each new season, but putting a comparable lack of depth in resources behind them, and a reasonable run with injuries, they remain a tough nut to crack.
That will be the goal again for Brown who has a core of experience available to him as they seek to finish higher up the final ladder.
Useful acquisitions have been made supplement that experience with dangerous outside back Solomon Alaimalo joining from the Chiefs while flanker Billy Harmon and utility back Fetuli Paea have headed south from the Crusaders seeking more opportunities. While upfront, the recruitment of former Otago Boys’ High School prop Jermaine Ainsley, who was selected as a Wallaby after moving to Australia, has been put on hold as the result of an ankle injury in the side’s pre-season build-up. His surgery will cause him to miss the season.
But there is a solid core to the pack with Liam Coltman and Ash Dixon to hook and Josh Hohneck, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi well versed in Super Rugby while Ayden Johnstone will be back once concussion protocols are completed.
Former All Black lock Bryn Evans is back after a decade overseas, notably with 74 games for London Irish and 102 for Sale, along with 20 appearances for Biarritz to provide some experience at lock where Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson and Maanaki Selby-Ricket return.
Options aplenty are available in the loose with Harmon joining Shannon Frizell, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Sione Misiloi.
One of the big movers from last year’s Mitre 10 Cup was halfback Folau Fakatava and with All Black Aaron Smith back on board with Kayne Hammington and the introduction of Kazuki Himeno from Japan, there will be plenty of interest in the position.
Brown’s influence should be seen in his former position of first five-eighths where Josh Ioane and Mitchell Hunt are the playmakers.
Excitement aplenty is on offer in the remainder of the backline where Nehe Milner-Skudder has the chance to make a comeback at the top level after years of injury woes. But alongside the likes of Vilimoni Koroi, Jona Nareki, Scott Gregory, Connor Garden Bachop and the emerging Sam Gilbert, there is the potential for fireworks aplenty.
Providing the solidity and nous will be Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Michael Collins and Alaimalo.
Back after a frustrating injury last year which ruled him out for much of the season, flanker James Lentjes, who had been the Highlanders captain, will be a key force in the loose, especially in coping with the demands and intensity of Super Rugby Aotearoa. He will ensure rivals of a genuine contest at breakdowns.
ROUND 1: Highlanders v Crusaders, Friday February 26, 7.05 pm, Dunedin
ROUND 2: Chiefs v Highlanders, Friday March 5, 7.05 pm, Hamilton
ROUND 3: Blues v Highlanders, Sunday March 14, 3.35 pm, Auckland
ROUND 5: Highlanders v Hurricanes, Friday March 26, 7.05 pm, Dunedin
ROUND 6: Crusaders v Highlanders, Friday April 2, 7.05 pm, Christchurch
ROUND 7: Highlanders v Chiefs, Saturday April 10, 7.05 pm, Dunedin
ROUND 8: Highlanders v Blues, Friday April 16, 7.05 pm, Dunedin
ROUND 10: Hurricanes v Highlanders, Friday April 30, 7.05 pm, Wellington
Forwards: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Ayden Johnstone, Ethan De Groot, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Bryn Evans, Shannon Frizell, Sione Misiloi, James Lentjes, Billy Harmon, Kazuki Himeno, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Teariki Ben- Nicholas, Liam Squire.
Backs: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava, Josh Ioane, Mitchell Hunt, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Patelesio Tomkinson, Michael Collins, Fetuli Paea, Scott Gregory, Jona Nareki, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Vilimoni Koroi, Solomon Alaimalo, Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden-Bachop, Ngatungane Punivai.