'He just looked like he was the connector of everything': Exiting Highlander might be the glue keeping their title hopes alive
After a Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign that proved to be a mixed bag, the Highlanders have flown under the radar somewhat in the Trans-Tasman edition in 2021. Indeed, with the departure of head coach Tony Brown to Japan for international duties, several injury issues and periods of controversy in the New Zealand competition many perhaps didn’t know what to expect come the competition featuring the Australian franchises.
Yet it quickly became apparent that the men from Dunedin had no intentions of being uncompetitive and the Highlanders haven’t looked back since a confident round one victory against the Super Rugby AU champions the Reds.
In fact, with each passing week, the southerners have been consistently going about their business, posting impressive score lines and showing great effectiveness in their set-piece thanks to a vastly experienced forward pack. The quality of their defence in the competition has also been outstanding, defence coach Shane Christie ensuring his team remain the best in the competition for tackle success heading into the final round of games.
Certainly their round four victory over the Waratahs proved the great cohesiveness and consistency the Highlanders have been able to build in these particular areas in such a short space of time. Their Saturday night outing saw them score forty-plus points in the competition for the third time.
Consistency seems to definitively define what the Highlanders are about this season. Much like the Blues, who currently sit just one point above them in first, consistency in team selection has proved an undoubted key to success in what is such a short, fast format of competition. With just five games lying between a team and the grand final, every game has been targeted with intensity and the Highlanders in this regard may just have set the formula to achieve their first Super Rugby success since 2015.
The backline that played against the Waratahs, for example, was the fourth time in a row that numbers 10-14 have all been occupied by the same players: Mitch Hunt, Jona Nareki, Scott Gregory, Michael Collins and Patelesio Tomkinson. Add in Josh Ioane, Sam Gilbert and Ngatungane Punivai and the Highlanders backline is certainly shaping up nicely. Not forgetting of course, the class and tempo that 97-test All Black Aaron Smith brings in buckets.
Whilst against the Waratahs, the Highlanders pack proved just as brutally effective as ever, it was one of the figures in their ever-consistent backline that caught former Blues hooker James Parsons’ attention. Speaking on this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons identified the often unnoticed but crucial contributions of his former teammate Collins at centre, in bringing about the Highlanders’ fourth win in a row of the season.
“He’s found his home at 13,” commented Parsons of the 28-year-old. “His game’s gone from strength to strength…On the weekend he got an early turnover, he got a try, he got a couple of try assists but it was what I saw off the ball, defensively, like his ability to read when to rush as the second-to-last defender…and shut things down even when there were overlaps, [that really impressed me].”
Other elements of Collins’ performance also impressed Parsons. “Whenever someone was subbed on he was always communicating, connecting with them, letting them know what the flow of game was. James Arscott on debut came on and he [Collins] was straight up to him organizing, he just looked like he was the connector of everything. He was a real solid leader for the group…and a big influencer in terms of all the action. ”
Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall was equally as complimentary of the Highlanders player, who will link up with Ospreys at the end of this season. “The biggest asset he has is that he’s a great communicator and has a pretty good understanding game management-wise.” said Hall. “Having that ability to be able to communicate inside what the space is in front of you or outside you is really important…and Michael’s doing that really well. You see on the field he’s pointing defensively, who’s got who and he gives a real confidence in that defence….I’ve loved that and his ability on attack as well.”
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Hall also noted the positive effect Collins seemed to be having on a backline made up largely of youthful exuberance, particularly his influence in forming a strong partnership with 22-year-old Scott Gregory in the centres. In much the same way as Collins and the No 13 jersey Gregory since returning to the Highlanders fold has laid claim to the 12 jersey, the position he featured in prominently at U20 level in 2018.
“I’ve really enjoyed seeing Gregory and Collins together,” noted Hall. “It’s been great for the continuity of that side and you’ve probably seen the best performance out of Scott Gregory due to Michael Collins and his ability to make him feel comfortable. It’s helped Mitch Hunt and their forward pack as well, when you’ve got a great communicator like Mike. From the outside, he looks like he’s doing a lot of good for that team.”
Certainly, given his Welsh connections, Collins may potentially be eyeing up a shot at higher honours when he lands in Swansea, following in the footsteps of fellow Kiwi-born Welshmen Gareth Anscombe, Hadleigh Parkes, Johnny McNicholl and Willis Halaholo.
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