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New era dawns for Highlanders

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Highlanders set for life without long-serving stars by welcoming a host of new names

Out with the old, in with the new.

That’s the mentality that the Highlanders have undertaken heading into the 2020 Super Rugby season with the announcement of 15 new signings to replace a host of departing veterans.

No longer will Forsyth Barr Stadium be graced with the presence of All Blacks stars Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Whitelock and Tyrel Lomax, while other integral squad members such as Matt Faddes, Tom Franklin, Richard Buckman, Marty Banks, Tevita Li and Aki Seiuli have also departed.

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By comparison, Aaron Mauger’s 39-man squad for next year is much more inexperienced, but exudes a wealth of potential with the fresh recruits they have lured south.

Eight of those new players will be taking part in their maiden campaigns at Super Rugby level, while the other seven have had experience with other franchises.

The overhaul is particularly evident in the outside backs, where Josh McKay and Tevita Nabura are the only two players retained from that contingent.

Supporting them will be electric Otago speedster Jona Nareki, who registered eight tries throughout this year’s Mitre 10 Cup, youngster Ngane Punivai, former Blues fullback Michael Collins, 20-year-old Connor Garden-Bachop and Counties Manukau flyer Chris Kuridrani.

As the only outside back whose signing with the franchise hadn’t previously been released publicly, Kuridrani’s inclusion is an intriguing one as he will provide some much-needed experience through his 25 appearances with the Queensland Reds between 2014 and 2017.

The brother of Fijian star Nemani Nadolo and cousin of Wallabies midfielder Tevita Kuridrani will also be joined by Northland’s Scott Gregory and first-five Mitch Hunt – who moves south from the Crusaders alongside Punivai – in rounding out the fresh faces in the backline, although Gregory’s involvement will be limited by his involvement with the All Blacks Sevens leading into the Tokyo Olympics.

Up front, the Highlanders will cherish the 35 collective Super Rugby caps of ex-Chiefs duo Jesse Parete and Jeff Thwaites, while hooker Ricky Jackson earns a promotion to become a full-time squad member after making his debut against the Rebels in March.

Sione Misiloi’s rise from the Heartland Championship to Super Rugby via the Mitre 10 Cup has already been documented, but he will have to compete for a starting spot in the loose forwards against fellow newbies Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Zane Kapeli.

A former New Zealand U20 and New Zealand Universities representative, Ben-Nicholas has been an eye-catching performer for Wellington at No. 8 in recent seasons, and his call-up to the Highlanders is a much-deserved one.

After impressing for Tonga at the recent World Cup, 27-year-old Kapeli earns his first contract at this level to put his day job as a builder on hold.

Young prop Ethan de Groot had his provincial campaign with Southland cut short by a knee injury, but the 20-year-old has shown enough promise in his brief career to warrant his first Super Rugby contract.

Provincial teammate Manaaki Selby-Rickit also wins selection, despite a run-in with the law earlier in the year which could have put his Super Rugby prospects in jeopardy.

It’s a squad that has head coach Mauger excited about the future of the Highlanders, and not just for next year.

“We’re pretty proud of the effort that’s gone into our recruitment process,” he told RugbyPass on Tuesday.

“We’re pretty clear on the character of players, people we want in our environment, and we’ve achieved that with a lot of hard work for the time we’ve spent doing our due diligence on players.

“In time, I think it’s going to be a very good side, but we want to make sure we set ourselves up to extract the best that we can out of this team for the current season. We’ll see how far that takes us.

“We’ll learn a lot about our guys early through the pre-season, it’ll be a great opportunity for us to stretch and grow as a whole squad.”

Perhaps the most significant addition for the Highlanders has come off the field, as the club hails the return of former first-five and coach Tony Brown as one of Mauger’s assistants.

The 18-test All Black was assistant coach for Japan when they reached the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history last month, and has become renowned for the vibrant, attacking tactics he implements into his sides.

Subsequently, his name has been attached to the vacant All Blacks head coach role with long-time coaching partner Jamie Joseph, but Mauger is pleased by the contribution he has already provided to the Highlanders since his return to Dunedin.

“It’s great to have him back, already having a great influence in and around the environment, especially within the coaching group as we look to build into the season,” Mauger said.

“He’s a pretty sharp thinker. Another point of difference for us is playing under the roof, so we’ve got an opportunity to play an exciting style and try a few things, something that gets Browny excited.

“[He’ll] come up with challenges for our players to execute things a little different, but the players will enjoy that, they enjoy the challenge.”

The side will come into camp ahead of Christmas, but not with a clean bill of health.

Midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen will be out of action with a shoulder injury until April, meaning Southland youngster Ray Nu’u will train with the team as an injury replacement through pre-season.

He will be joined by Otago flanker Slade McDowall, who Mauger admitted came very close to securing a full-time contract.

“Saw his performance in the Mitre 10 Cup, thought he was outstanding, saw a lot of growth in his game, so he’s another guy we’ve tracked really closely and he’s not too far off,” Mauger said.

“Really excited about having him through the pre-season to keep developing his game and learn a bit more about him.”

The Highlanders will kick-off their 2020 Super Rugby season against the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on February 7.

2020 HIGHLANDERS SQUAD

Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson*

Props: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Jeff Thwaites*, Ethan de Groot*

Locks: Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Jack Whetton, Manaaki Selby-Rickit*

Loosies: James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Shannon Frizell, Sione Misiloi*, Zane Kapeli*, Teariki Ben-Nicholas*, Jesse Parete*

Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava

First-Fives: Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt*

Midfielders: Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Scott Gregory*

Outside Backs: Ngane Punivai*, Jona Nareki*, Tevita Nabura, Josh McKay, Michael Collins*, Chris Kuridrani*, Connor Garden-Bachop*

* denotes new squad member

2019-20 Transfers

In: Ricky Jackson (Otago), Ethan de Groot (Southland), Jeff Thwaites (Bay of Plenty), Manaaki Selby-Rickett (Southland), Teariki Ben-Nicholas (Wellington), Zane Kapeli (Bay of Plenty), Sione Misiloi (Otago), Jesse Parete (Chiefs), Mitch Hunt (Crusaders), Scott Gregory (Northland), Michael Collins (Blues), Connor Garden-Bachop (Wellington), Chris Kuridrani (Counties Manukau), Jona Nareki (Otago), Ngane Punivai (Crusaders)

Out: Sef Fa’agase (released), Tyrel Lomax (Hurricanes), Aki Seiuli (Glasgow Warriors), Ray Nuia (Blues), Tom Franklin (Kobelco Steelers), Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi DynaBoars), Elliot Dixon (Ricoh Black Rams), Liam Squire (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes), Luke Whitelock (Pau), Marty Banks (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes), Richard Buckman (Kobelco Steelers), Matt Faddes (Ulster), Tevita Li (Suntory Sungoliath), Waisake Naholo (London Irish), Ben Smith (Pau)

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Highlanders set for life without long-serving stars by welcoming a host of new names