Last season: Beaten finalists in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, fourth in Super Rugby Aotearoa
Home ground: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Coach: Tony Brown
Captain: James Lentjes
Gains: Gareth Evans, Andrew Makalio, Marty Banks, Mosese Dawai, Rhys Marshall, Josh Timu, Sean Withy, Saula Ma’u, Max Hicks, Sam Caird
Losses: Josh Ioane, Ash Dixon, Siate Tokolahi, Kazuki Himeno, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Michael Collins, Tim O’Malley, Jack Regan, Liam Squire
Having made an impact with the exposure he received with the All Blacks during the Rugby Championship and on their northern tour, prop Ethan de Groot shapes as the player to watch during the Highlanders’ season. Demonstrating a hunger to learn, de Groot gained invaluable lessons from the more experienced front row core of the side while also starting against the USA and substituting against Italy.
ROOKIE TO WATCH
Hooker Rhys Marshall is not your usual rookie. He’s got 28 games for the Chiefs behind him and 81 games for Munster between 2015-21. He was a New Zealand Under-20 representative in 2012. But joining the Highlanders, he faces a big task in stepping into the shoes of co-captain Ash Dixon who has headed off-shore. Ensuring the Highlanders maintain the strength at hooker that they showed during last season will be his challenge.
February 26 shapes as a big game for the Highlanders when they play the Crusaders in Invercargill. Covid-19 changes have seen the Highlanders moving into a bubble with the other sides in Queenstown and night games being played in Dunedin. Even without the prospect of a home crowd, the opportunity to score another win like that they enjoyed in Christchurch last year, will be a big incentive for the side.
The Highlanders finished well last year and pushed hard in the final before going down 23-15. They showed their best in beating the Crusaders in Christchurch, and building on those achievements is a goal for the side. They have recruited well and retain a core of experience that will make them formidable. Undeterred by winning away from home, they have a significant asset and getting up to speed as quickly as possible while employing the innovations that coach Tony Brown is renowned for, making them a contender for a high finish in 2022.
Hookers: Liam Coltman, Rhys Marshall, Andrew Makalio
Props: Ayden Johnstone, Jeff Thwaites, Ethan de Groot, Jermaine Ainsley, Josh Hohneck, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u
Locks: Maanaki Selby-Rickit, Josh Dickson, Bryn Evans, Max Hicks, Sam Caird
Loose forwards: James Lentjes, Billy Harmon, Hugh Renton, Shannon Frizell, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Gareth Evans, Sean Withy
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington
First fives: Marty Banks, Mitchell Hunt
Midfield: Fetuli Paea, Patelesio Tomkinson, Solomon Alaimalo, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Ngatungane Punivai, Scott Gregory
Outside backs: Connor Garden-Bachop, Mosese Dawai, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert, Josh Timu