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Highlanders name youth, experience and cult heroes in 2022 squad

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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In the wake of an off-season where they lost a number of key players, the Highlanders have recruited strongly ahead of the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season.

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Following their runner-up finish in this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign, the Dunedin-based franchise have fallen victim to a mini-exodus whereby numerous headline names have departed for greener pastures elsewhere.

Two of the nine players who have left the Highlanders are All Blacks, one of them being mercurial playmaker Josh Ioane, who was released by the southerners and was subsequently picked up by the Chiefs on a one-year deal.

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The other is barnstorming loose forward Liam Squire, who has been forced into retirement due to a persistent knee injury.

The Highlanders’ back row stocks have taken a further hit by the loss of Brave Blossoms star Kazuki Himeno, who has returned to Toyota Verblitz in Japan.

It’s in League One, formerly known as the Top League, where inspirational co-captain Ash Dixon has also headed to as part of his deal with Green Rockets Tokatsu.

Those losses – which have been compounded by the departures of dependable midfielder Michael Collins, experienced prop Siate Tokolahi, loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas, lock Jack Regan and first-five Tim O’Malley – have stripped the Highlanders of many of their core figures in the playing group.

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However, head coach Tony Brown has moved to fill the voids left by those outgoing players by bringing in a blend of youth and experience for his 2022 squad.

That balance has already been partially revealed by previously-announced acquisitions of Highlanders cult hero first-five Marty Banks, one-test All Blacks loose forward Gareth Evans, ex-Crusaders hooker Andrew Makalio and development players Sean Withy and Saula Ma’u.

Based on the five further signings made by the franchise – locks Sam Caird and Max Hicks, hooker Rhys Marshall, wing Mosese Dawai and utility back Josh Timu – there is plenty of evidence to suggest they can build on their 2021 successes by pushing for silverware next year.

Caird and Hicks, who can also play blindside flanker, will both provide cover for injured All Blacks prospect Pari Pari Parkinson, who has been sidelined for an entire year after suffering a multi-ligament knee injury while playing for Tasman in the NPC.

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The same can be said for Dawai and Timu, both of whom have won contracts ahead of Otago fan favourite Freedom Vahaakolo to offer the Highlanders with squad depth following electric wing Jona Nareki’s ruptured ACL injury.

At 24-years-old, Caird – a member of the world champion 2017 New Zealand U20 side – brings with him Super Rugby experience from the Chiefs, Blues and Waratahs.

Both he and Hicks, a former Blues and Crusaders development player and an ex-New Zealand U18 AFL representative who has stood out for Tasman this year, will compete with Bryn Evans, Josh Dickson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit for starting roles at lock.

Timu, meanwhile, was called into the Highlanders squad as injury cover earlier this year and was a regular for the Sunwolves under the tutelage of Brown in 2019.

He’s joined in the outside backs by Dawai, who was named as one of four Highlanders development players – alongside current squad members Vilimoni Koroi and Thomas Umaga-Jensen – in 2016 but has only now won a full contract after some scintillating showings for Waikato.

The two youngsters – aged 24 and 23, respectively – will face stern competition for places in the backline from impressive campaigners such as Koroi, Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden-Bachop and Solomon Alaimalo.

Normally a wing or fullback, Koroi will offer support at first-five behind Banks and Mitch Hunt, both of whom will work in tandem with captain Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava and Kayne Hammington to steer the side around the park.

2022 could also be the first time Highlanders fans finally get to see Umaga-Jensen and two-test Tongan international Fetuli Paea pair up in the midfield together after injuries ruined their highly-anticipated seasons this year.

Next year could also spell the long-awaited debut of former Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley, who was signed by the franchise for this year’s campaign but suffered a season-ending injury before Super Rugby Aotearoa began.

Ainsley may suit up in the front row alongside Marshall, the former Chiefs hooker who returned to New Zealand this year after five years with Irish club Munster to play for North Harbour in the NPC.

The 29-year-old will add much-needed experience as a back-up option to Makalio and eight-test All Blacks rake Liam Coltman in the No 2 jersey.

With first-choice openside flanker Billy Harmon expected to miss the opening half of the season, Withy and Evans could be set for extensive game time alongside Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u in the back row, although ex-skipper James Lentjes might be the preferred replacement.

Regardless of who is named to play for the Highlanders in 2022, Brown is pleased with the make-up of his roster, which features six All Blacks in the form of Smith, Frizell, Coltman, Ethan de Groot and the Evans brothers.

“We’re really looking forward to taking on Super Rugby Pacific with this team, we have some good experience up front, good playmakers in the backs, and good size and pace mixed throughout the squad,” he said.

“It’s going to be a short preseason so it’s good to have so many guys familiar with how we do things returning in 2022, we will obviously need to hit the ground running.”

The Highlanders will kick-off their 2022 season against their South Island rivals, the Crusaders, at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch on February 19.

2022 Highlanders transfers

In: Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Andrew Makalio (Crusaders); Marty Banks (Southland); Mosese Dawai (Waikato); Rhys Marshall (Ireland); Josh Timu (Otago); Sean Withy (Otago), Saula Ma’u (Otago), Max Hicks (Tasman), Sam Caird (Northland)

Out: Josh Ioane (Chiefs), Ash Dixon (Green Rockets Tokatsu), Siate Tokolahi (Pau), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz), Teariki Ben-Nicholas (Castres), Michael Collins (Ospreys), Tim O’Malley (Benetton), Jack Regan (Ospreys), Liam Squire (retired)

2022 Highlanders squad

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, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Ngatungane Punivai, Scott Gregory

Outside backs: Connor Garden-Bachop, Mosese Dawai, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert, Josh Timu, Solomon Alaimalo

Unavailable due to injury: Jona Nareki, Pari Pari Parkinson

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