That’s the verdict from the franchise’s head coach Aaron Mauger, who delivered a stern warning to his forward pack about providing a platform for his playmakers to work from ahead of the new Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
The poor run of form led to scrutiny aimed at the untested playmaking axis that saw regular pivot Ioane don the No. 12 jersey in every match throughout the season, while new recruit Mitch Hunt took the helm at fly-half.
That won’t be the case any longer, though, after a review of the opening rounds of the ill-fated season has spurred changes in selection philosophy as the Highlanders eye a fresh start in the new domestic league.
“We see Josh primarily as a 10,” Mauger told media on Wednesday. “The competition between Josh, Mitch Hunt and Bryn Gatland is for that No. 10 jumper.
“[It’s] highly likely that Josh won’t be wearing the No. 12 jersey.
“We’ve always thought he’s a 10. We’re just trying to get two guys and have a bit of an experiment early on.”
Mauger’s decision to play Ioane out of his favoured position was further questioned as Hunt struggled to live up to expectations after moving to Forsyth Barr Stadium from the Crusaders in the off-season.
The team’s persistence to move the ball out wide early on in their build-up play often came back to bite the Highlanders, who leaked tries through misfired passes and interceptions from their playmakers.
Leaping to Hunt’s defence, Mauger said the 24-year-old had been unfairly criticised for his performances in the blue and gold jersey, and warned that his squad’s forwards needed to improve if Hunt is to thrive in the coming weeks.
“I wouldn’t say it [Hunt-Ioane partnership] was an absolute failure, but there was certainly some good lessons there for everybody,” Mauger said.
“I think Mitch Hunt probably copped a lot of flak through that period that was unjust.
“When your forward pack’s on the front foot, the game’s a whole lot easier and we didn’t provide that as a pack, so we made our No. 9’s and No. 10’s job really hard in that early part of the season, so all the things we know Mitch is capable of as a class fly-half he wasn’t able to always deliver.”
“The challenge for us is to make sure our pack’s firing, and that’s where we’ve put a bit of accountability on those boys.
“They’ve got to front up and be better, like if we’re going to play the game of footy we want to play, our pack’s just got to be better, and they’ve got to work harder for each other, got to be more consistent for 80 minutes.”
That change in tactical mindset will open up competition for spots at both first-five and second-five, with Mauger lauding the options at his disposal in both the middle of the backline.
“We’ve got quality midfielders, we’ve got quality 10s. At times, we’ve tried to get our 10s on the park and use them as ball players.
“That’s still an option for us, but all our midfielders – Teihorangi [Walden], Sio [Tomkinson], Ngane Punivai, Rob Thompson’s back fit and firing as well – so it’s pretty good competition for those spots.
“Nothing’s a given for anybody.”
Providing they stay injury-free, all four of those players will be in contention to play in the Highlanders’ first match in Super Rugby Aotearoa, which is a home clash against the Chiefs on June 13.
Warren Gatland’s men were flying high before Super Rugby was put on halt, with four wins from six appearances placing them fifth on the overall table.
With two exciting playmakers of their own, Mauger is expecting the Hamilton side to bring their free-flowing style of play to Forsyth Barr Stadium, which will suit the visitors under the stadium’s roof.
“They’re high on energy, obviously got a good buzz in their environment, they’ve played some good footy.
“They’re a pretty dangerous side. Damian McKenzie’s in good form, Aaron Cruden has been outstanding for them in those early rounds, so I’m sure they’ll be looking to pick up where they left.”
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