Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon says he misses playing overseas teams in Super Rugby as the future of the scheduled Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition hangs in the balance.
Speaking to media ahead of his side’s Super Rugby Aotearoa clash against the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday, Dixon said it would be “great” to play the Australian franchises again after a year of frequently playing against Kiwi opposition.
“A little bit. I guess I am a bit,” the 32-year-old said when asked if he misses playing foreign teams. “It’s great playing the same guy six times a year and have a good chat to them, but I’m not in control of that. I can’t do a lot about it.
“I just get the opportunity to wear the jersey and I’ll take the most of that. The now for me is this weekend and the Canes.
“I’ve just got to do my best for that, but wouldn’t it be great if we got to play in the Trans-Tasman [competition] after this one, so fingers crossed it might happen, but if it doesn’t, we’ll just work with whatever it is.”
The last time the Highlanders played an offshore-based team was March 8 last year, when they lost 38-13 to the Bulls in Pretoria.
Under the tutelage of then-head coach Aaron Mauger, the southern club were then supposed to play the Jaguares in Buenos Aires the following week, but that fixture was cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Since then, the Highlanders and the other four New Zealand franchises have been pitted against each other in a domestic competition that is nearing the halfway stage of its second season.
The five Australian teams have also been duking it out in their own Super Rugby AU competition, but a six-week Trans-Tasman competition has been scheduled to kick-off in May in the hope of ending Super Rugby’s drought of cross-border fixtures.
A travel bubble between the two nations is expected to be announced on April 6, more than a month before the Trans-Tasman competition’s opening fixture between the Highlanders and Reds in Dunedin on May 14.
Provided the virus doesn’t flare up in New Zealand or Australia over the coming weeks, as it has done over the past couple of months, Dixon’s thirst for more diverse opponents looks likely to be quenched.
Further additions of overseas-based teams is also expected next year, with prospective Pacific Island sides Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua both receiving multi-million dollar funding from World Rugby earlier this week in anticipation of their inclusions in a new-look, 12-team Super Rugby competition.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie thinks the quality of Australian Super Rugby has improved and is keen for the Trans-Tasman competition to go ahead as planned. #SuperRugbyAU #SuperRugbyAotearoa https://t.co/rD1xkIIuQB
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 26, 2021
Reports suggest both teams could be granted licences to compete in Super Rugby by the end of next month, which is good news for Dixon, who believes his Highlanders side are in good stead to face those teams and their Australian counterparts over the coming seasons.
He said that, despite an inconsistent start to this season and a lacklustre campaign in 2020, the Dunedin-based franchise are moving in the right direction of realising their potential, as evidenced by the retention of multiple key players.
Star halfback and fellow co-captain Aaron Smith announced his recommitment to the club earlier this month by signing a two-year contract extension with the Highlanders and New Zealand Rugby in a deal that will see him through to the 2023 World Cup.
That was followed by confirmation that Smith’s understudy Folau Fakatava and highly-rated lock Pari Pari Parkinson have also re-signed with the Highlanders, which Dixon said was an indication of how well the organisation is operating behind the scenes.
“I guess with Pari signing again and Aaron and Folau staying around, we’re starting to hold some guys. We’re not really going the best that we probably want to be in, but it just shows that our environment and intentions are in the right direction,” he said.
“We’ve just got to try do more talking on the field and get our execution in the right place to get some more wins under the belt.”
Highlanders head coach Tony Brown echoed Dixon’s sentiments as he labelled the retention of those three players as a “massive compliment” to the franchise.
“I think the Highlanders have always been a quality team to play for and Aaron has definitely made this his home and it’s a massive compliment to the organisation that guys like Aaron and Folau and Pari want to re-sign and strive to make this team better,” Brown said.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 25, 2021
Keeping Smith on the club’s books was a particularly significant achievement given the influence he has among his peers and the stature he has within the sport.
The 97-test All Black has been named to start in Friday’s match, and, in doing so, he will make his 154th appearance for the Highlanders, breaking Ben Smith’s record of most matches for the franchise.
Dixon, who last year played his 100th Super Rugby match against the Hurricanes in the same fixture that Smith made his 150th outing for the Highlanders, lathered his co-skipper in prise ahead of his milestone match.
“It’s a phenomenal achievement for a guy who’s world-class. Really, really pumped for him,” Dixon said.
“Really stoked at what he’s given to the club, and, myself, I’ve known him for a very long time and I feel really privileged to be able to operate with him with the team and just so excited for him, and I know he’s absolutely buzzing.
“Just got to try and keep a lid on it for him before game time. He’s like Jack and the Beanstalk, he’s so pumped about it, so really proud of him and what he’s done for the community.”
Kick-off for the Highlanders’ clash against the Hurricanes is scheduled for 7:05pm on Friday NZT.
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