The arrival of the headline signing of former Crusaders first five Mitch Hunt last season forced then-coach Aaron Mauger to look at how he would operate the Highlanders backline with newly capped Josh Ioane also on the rise.
To start the Super Rugby season, Mauger tried a now-uncommon combination in New Zealand, using both pivots at 10 and 12. The experiment got off to a rough start as the Highlanders won just one game from their first six matches before the competition was cancelled.
The arrival of Hunt stalled the growth of Josh Ioane as a 10 until last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa season, with new coach Tony Brown opting to use the pair as a 10-15 combination, a more common dual playmaker arrangement in New Zealand.
With Ioane at 10 and Hunt at fullback, the Highlanders completed an impressive comeback over the Chiefs in round two of Super Rugby Aotearoa, highlighted by three tries to wing Jona Nareki.
Former Blues hooker James Parsons said on this week’s Aotearoa Rugby Pod that it was the two playmakers that deserved a fair share of the plaudits.
“I thought Josh Ioane was looking great, especially when he was running at that line and just getting through, enabling to get his hands free for those offloads and making defenders think,” he said.
“I think Mitch Hunt has that ability to inject himself in that first receiver role. Also, I think they did that same overthrow line out move where Conor Garden-Bachop scored [against the Crusaders].
“They used it again and Mitch Hunt injected himself and obviously drew in McKenzie. I liked him at fullback, I think the dual-pivot worked really well for them later in the game, and I think Josh really came into his own once he started playing that flat style of game that he’s really good at. I was really impressed with what I saw.”
With Richie Mo’unga the clear number one option at 10 currently playing in New Zealand, there is an opening behind him to become the number two option for Ian Foster and his staff.
After an impressive showing against the Hurricanes in week one by Otere Black of the Blues, Parsons was prepared to also put Ioane back into that conversation after his Chiefs’ performance.
“We spoke up Otsy [Otere Black]. Otsy last week and the way his game management in a different style of play, Josh has certainly put his hat in the ring with that performance.”
“The ability to stay calm and composed at 20-nil, to sort of orchestrate a come back. I think both of them need credit, Mitch and Josh, but at 20-nil it’s not easy to be looking down the barrel like that.”
“Tony Brown spoke about his leaders having a big part to play, and I think Ash Dixon is a big part of that and Aaron Smith is a big part, but it always comes down to your 9, 10, and 15 and your hooker to get you to that victory.”
The 25-year-old Highlanders playmaker debuted for the All Blacks in 2019 against Tonga before the Rugby World Cup, but was then not picked in the squad’s 2020 Rugby Championship campaign by new coach Ian Foster.
Ioane will get the chance to potentially square off head-to-head with Otere Black when the Blues host the Highlanders this week, in a key matchup battle that could have ramifications for All Blacks selections later in the year.
Despite the Highlanders’ impressive comeback away win over the Chiefs, Parsons wasn’t prepared to back them over the in-form Blues who, coming off the bye, should be fresh and ready for this game.
“I think the Highlanders are good, they are a really good outfit. They are not a one man show. Certainly Nareki is good, in pre-season he had spiders on him and he is one to watch, but their forwards are old school.
“They roll up their sleeves, they seem to be sticking with that maul, they are desperate for that maul try so the Blues will be wanting to nail that maul defence.
“They know what is coming. It is always a big battle. I think the Highlanders will still be hurting from that last-gasp victory we got against them at Eden Park last year.
“I think the Blues have got enough, a week off, coming back fresh and a bit of confidence from getting that away win.”
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