For most onlookers, the Highlanders’ quarter-final defeat to the Waratahs in Sydney was simply a season-ending loss for the Dunedin-based franchise.
But for veteran first-five Lima Sopoaga, it was his last-ever match for the team that he debuted for as a 20-year-old in 2011.
Since then, Sopoaga has fought through injury woes and patches of poor form to establish himself as a fan favourite at the club, a status of which he earned after helping lead them to their maiden Super Rugby title in 2015.
From there, an All Blacks call-up followed, and by the end of 2017, he managed to cement himself as the nation’s back-up first-five.
However, the shock announcement was made in January that the 16-test pivot had signed a one-year million-dollar deal to play for English club Wasps, which effectively ended both his All Blacks career and World Cup aspirations.
While much has been made around how the deal signifies the growing struggle that New Zealand Rugby faces in trying to retain key members of their playing pool, little has been made on the effect Sopoaga’s departure will have on the Highlanders.
The void created in terms of experience, ability, and value brought to the Highlanders’ famed team culture by the 92-match playmaker cannot be underestimated.
At this stage, two of the three first-five slots for next year have been filled by 23-year-old’s Josh Ioane and new signing Bryn Gatland, but both lack the wealth of experience and tactical nous that Sopoaga offered.
Add to that the ongoing trend of champion Super Rugby teams possessing top-class first- fives in their ranks, and the need for a veteran playmaker is increasingly evident.
Therefore, we have decided to scan over a few first-fives from around the globe that might fit the bill to become Sopoaga’s successor in 2019.
Quade Cooper has been making headlines since the end of 2017 when he was sensationally dropped by Reds head coach Brad Thorn.
The 70-test Wallabies veteran is still tied to a reported $700,000 per year contract with the Reds and Rugby Australia until the end of next year’s World Cup, but has instead been plying his trade with Brisbane club side Souths in the Queensland Premier Rugby competition.
Desperate to return to the professional arena, the fleet-footed 30-year-old has fielded interest from the Brumbies and Rebels in Australia, but that hasn’t stopped a whirlwind of rumours on this side of the Tasman.
A transfer to the Blues immediately after his axing was widely speculated, but that focus has now shifted to the Highlanders.
Cooper would probably exceed Sopoaga in terms of experience and ability, making him a supremely ideal candidate for the Dunedin franchise.
His time at grassroots level has not diminished his flamboyant style of play, as shown by a series of highlight videos shared online, while his 12-year professional career has seen him attend two World Cups, play in the French Top 14, and win a Super Rugby title in 2011.
However, for all the benefits the Highlanders would reap from this acquisition, they are not willing to pursue Cooper’s signature.
An Otago Daily Times report which speculated Cooper’s potential move down south was branded as “fake news” by the Highlanders on Twitter, while club CEO Roger Clark he was not “somebody we have ever considered or would consider”.
Cooper could well be the best candidate to fill Sopoaga’s boots next year, but as it stands, the likelihood of the Tokoroa-born trickster bringing a second title to the deep south is incredibly slim.
Marty Banks’ contribution to the role of back-up first-five was significant during his three- year stay in Dunedin.
His 78th -minute drop goal in the 2015 Super Rugby final against the Hurricanes cemented his place in Highlanders folklore, and last year, the 2017 Highlanders Fans’ Player of the Year’s wrapped up his time in the deep south with a string of convincing performances that
established him as a cult hero of New Zealand rugby.
With Sopoaga out of action for two months with a hamstring injury, Banks steered the Highlanders to a franchise-record nine straight victories through his impressively calm demeanour, no-frills style of play, and astute goal kicking.
It is that level of in-game maturity that his former side will desperately need out of whoever runs the cutter for them in 2019.
Few first-fives are so cool-headed yet are so underrated, and that is what makes Banks such an attractive option for the Highlanders.
To get Banks to make a return to the side that played so well under his stewardship would be logical from an on-field perspective, while his comedic presence in the team would boost morale both within the squad and among supporters.
While a switch to the Highlanders appears unlikely, his recent transfer to second division Japanese side NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes could make the move plausible.
With the Top Challenge League season starting in September and wrapping up in early December, and Super Rugby not kicking off again until February next year, an off-season loan to the Highlanders seems reasonable.
The fine print of Banks’ three-year contract with the Japanese club is unknown, but one would think that Highlanders staff should be doing everything they can to fill their first-five vacancy with a player of proven quality, such as the man that secured them with their maiden Super Rugby crown.
After an extended run of injuries dating back to 2015, Hayden Parker finally came of age this year in his debut campaign for the Sunwolves.
Capped 30 times for the Highlanders between 2013 and 2017, the man known as the Kurow Kid had a rough run during his time at the franchise.
If he wasn’t recovering from long-term injuries, he found himself firmly entrenched as the back-up first-five to Colin Slade and then Sopoaga.
With a serious knee injury preventing him from taking the field for the Highlanders last year, Parker called time on his stint down south and followed coach Tony Brown to link up with former title-winning coach Jamie Joseph at the Sunwolves.
Parker went on to flourish after signing a one-year deal for the Tokyo-based franchise, as his game went from strength-to-strength on a weekly basis.
His biggest asset was undoubtedly his goal kicking ability, as he slotted 48 of his 50 attempts on goal, registering a miraculous 96% kicking record for the year.
Add to that an improved running game and authoritative approach to directing his backline around the park – two attributes that helped him guide the Sunwolves to a franchise-record three victories this season – and it appears that Parker is finally developing into a premier first-five.
His composure under pressure cannot be undervalued either, as his match-winning drop goal in injury time against the Stormers in Hong Kong in May exemplified.
A first-five with stability is what the Highlanders will be vying for as they head into next season, and in Hayden Parker, they could have what they are searching for.
With his current Sunwolves deal coming to an end, Parker will be a free agent in the Super Rugby market next season.
Currently, his only playing commitments lie with the Panasonic Wild Knights in the Top League, but, as previously explained, the structure of the Japanese club season makes a switch back to the Highlanders a very real possibility.
A home-grown Highlander is rare to come by these days, and even rarer is an opportunity for a first-five to take the leading role at a New Zealand Super Rugby franchise.
With that in mind, the chance to redeem his injury-riddled spell at the Highlanders could prove to be too much for the North Otago-born and-raised Parker to turn down.
As far-fetched as a concept this is, there have been whispers circulating on social media of a potential return to New Zealand from the great first-five of all-time.
The idea of Dan Carter plying his trade in Super Rugby for any team other than the Crusaders seems ludicrous, as is the thought of him returning to New Zealand to finish off his distinguished playing career.
However, with former Canterbury, Crusaders and All Blacks teammate Aaron Mauger at the helm of the franchise as head coach, the possibility of reuniting with his former five-eighth partner could be enough to lure the star man south.
From a marketing standpoint, given his obvious prominence within the rugby fraternity, and in terms of aiding Josh Ioane’s and Bryn Gatland’s development through a mentoring role as a senior leader in the squad, the Highlanders’ recruitment of Carter makes some sense.
Furthermore, a stint at the Highlanders could lay the foundations for a potentially successful coaching career, given the plethora of experience Carter has gained in his 16-year career.
Fairfax Media reported earlier this year that Carter hinted at going into coaching once he hangs up his playing boots, although the 112-test veteran told Agence France-Presse that it would not be something he would be ready for in the immediate wake of his retirement.
While a transfer to the Highlanders would be possible given Carter’s playing commitments with Top League side Kobelco Steelers would be non-existent during the Super Rugby season, it still seems to be absurd to think he would make a Super Rugby comeback, even
more so given it would not be with the Crusaders.
Closer to the age of 40 than he is 30, one wonders whether Carter would still be able to play to the best of his ability amid the high-paced nature of Super Rugby, especially with the helter-skelter style of play the Highlanders have become accustomed to.
With that in mind, the question would have to be asked as to whether the publicity and development benefits would really be worth Carter’s signature if he could not reproduce the sort of form for the Highlanders that earned him his legendary status while at the
The simplest way for the Highlanders to fix their first-five problem would be to look at who they already have in their ranks.
There, they will find Fletcher Smith, who is coming off contract heading into the off-season. The same age as Ioane and Gatland, Smith is by no means anywhere near as seasoned as the other four names that are featured on this list.
With other options such as Marty Banks and Hayden Parker on the table, a leap of faith would be required by Aaron Mauger and his henchmen to extend Smith’s contract and have three inexperienced first-fives steering the ship for the entirety of the 2019 campaign.
Between the trio, they share just 40 caps at Super Rugby level, with Gatland and Smith contributing 16 apiece.
However, what separates Smith from his peers is his explosive running game and top-class goal kicking.
Last year’s Mitre 10 Cup clash between Otago and Hawke’s Bay best highlights Smith’s quality, as he piled on a record-breaking 34 points in a 61-24 rout of the Magpies, scoring a hat-trick of tries and converting nine out of 10 attempts on goal.
Scarcely used throughout the 2018 season, Smith was effective when he did appear on the field for the Highlanders, and left more of an impression than the error-prone Ioane.
Countering Smith’s electric style of play is Gatland, who is comparatively conservative and structured.
But, it is Smith’s ability to break a match open that is vacant from both Ioane’s and Gatland’s repertoire.
While stability from their first-fives will be of the upmost importance for the Highlanders next year, it is likely they will need a key figure to burst the game open when they find themselves trailing in matches throughout the season.
When playing in his preferred role of first-five rather than at fullback, Smith could well be that man, so it is somewhat surprising that he has not yet been re-signed by the southerners.
His signature may want to be secured sooner rather than later, as a shift to Waikato for the upcoming domestic season could see the Chiefs steal the man that could solve the Highlanders’ first-five predicament.
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