The sudden end to their season will haunt them with thoughts of what could’ve been after holding a commanding 23-6 halftime lead in the quarterfinal. The ‘Road Warriors’ had visions of 2015 all over again before the Tahs superstars lead a dramatic comeback to snuff out the men from the Deep South.
The loss marks the end of a promising season, the first under new head coach Aaron Mauger, and is almost the final chapter of the title-winning era.
The pieces of the 2015 Highlanders championship team have been slowly departing over the last few seasons. Head coach Jamie Joseph and assistant mad scientist Tony Brown are now fully integrated into Japan’s system, gun strike weapon Malakai Fekitoa left to take up a deal with French superpower Toulon and the side will lose their best ever first-five, Lima Sopoaga to Wasps.
His last play will go down as an ill-executed pop pass on the inside to a screaming Aaron Smith, metres out from the line that could have kept the season alive. The missed opportunity summed up the Highlanders season in a way – close but not enough.
After starting with a win over the Blues in a high octane 41-34 shootout, the Highlanders went on to claim the big scalp a few weeks later, beating the Crusaders 25-17 at home. A promising start was met with turbulence when they lost two crucial away derbies back-to-back to the Hurricanes and Chiefs just before the bye.
They regained momentum after with three straight wins. A defining moment was Sopoaga hitting a clutch penalty to steal a 29-28 win over the Bulls in South Africa that kept the streak going. They next week they were brought back to earth with a heavy defeat at the hands of the Sharks.
In the New Zealand conference, three losses is enough to put you out of contention for the top qualifier spot and they were on the back foot chasing results. They finished the regular season with a respectable 10-6 record to qualify for the playoffs.
The kick-first and kick-second approach continued under Aaron Mauger, utilising the box kicking of Aaron Smith and the short-range nudges of Sopoaga, Walden and Thompson and even Ben Smith. The Highlanders five-pronged kicking attack kept each game in a constant state of transition, creating as many unstructured situations as possible. The frequency of first phase kicking off set-piece pushed the opposition to scramble but gave away a lot of quality ball.
This approach had many praising the defensive stats of the Highlanders workmanlike pack, but it may have been a double-edged sword. No team tackles as much, but as the season wore on the team began to tire, missing more tackles and ended up on the receiving end of a couple of thumpings.
The defensive load may have taken its toll after a season of kicking possession away. The Highlanders 152.5 tackles per game was by far the most of any team.
Moving forward, the loss of Sopoaga will very much change the makeup of this team, losing a key playmaker and component of the kicking game. World-class halfback Aaron Smith stands to take on more control as young first fives Fletcher Smith and Josh Ioane vie for the vacant 10 jersey. Ex-Blues pivot Bryn Gatland will also throw his hat in the mix, joining the side on a two-year deal.
The loose forward depth still appears to be strong with the emergence of new All Black Shannon Frizell, who they will hope to keep around. With Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire and Elliot Dixon the back row provides All Blacks with mobility and speed. James Lentjes and Dillon Hunt are also confirmed for next season. New Zealand under-20 young loose forward, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, will also join the full-time squad, promoted to a full contract.
The tight five is a bit of a mystery, with the contract status of a large number unknown. Jackson Hemipo is confirmed to return in the second row, with Liam Coltman, Tyrell Lomax and Siate Tokolahi packing down up front. That leaves a number of experienced campaigners like Ash Dixon and Dan Lienert-Brown as uncertainties at this stage. Tom Franklin will head to Japan for an off-season stint by the side is hopeful of keeping him for 2019.
This year’s centre pairing of Tei Waldon and Rob Thompson will be back to form another partnership. Thompson was a standout this season and elevated his game filling the vacancy left by Fekitoa. With Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith outside him, he should continue to play at a high level. Tex Nebura has earned a full-time contract and could oust Tevita Li as the left wing option. Young flyer Josh McKay is also waiting in the wings.
The 2019 roster is a work-in-progress that has just over 50% locked in. The Highlanders will have to juggle players coming off contract with filling needs on the open market, as well as keeping emerging Mitre 10 talent. The flexibility gives the Highlanders room to move but holds risk that this collection of out-of-town talent fails to gel with limited time.
The marquee players like the Smiths, Squire, Dixon and Naholo will provide the core foundation but too much volatility with ancillary pieces on the roster can affect how everything comes together.
Mauger, in his second year in charge, could look to change a few things and find some balance between the kicking game and holding possession, especially from set-piece situations.
They still have some of the best players in Super Rugby, with one of the world’s best halfbacks and fullbacks to play around. With a bit of tinkering, the Highlanders will still give teams headaches and Forsyth Barr will still be a fortress – they were undefeated at home this year going 7-0. They may not want to take a crucial New Zealand derby offshore next year after the Suva meltdown and would be wise to pick another matchup.
The championship era built by Joseph has ended and it’s now time for Aaron Mauger to build a new one.
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