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How the Highlanders are preparing for life after Aaron Smith

By Ned Lester
Folau Fakatava scored a crucial try for the Highlanders in their win over the Reds. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

The Highlanders will be without the services of Aaron Smith for the first time in a dozen years come 2024, ending an historic era for the club and providing a potential shift in attacking identity.

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With Smith’s second-to-none passing accuracy and game management, the Highlanders team benefitted from direct distribution and direction as a foundation of their attacking play.

Now, with the role of the halfback in the modern game varying thanks to the running threat of the likes of Antoine Dupont and Jamison Gibson-Park, especially against rushed defensive lines, the Highlanders have the chance to evolve their attack and play to the strengths of their next generation of talent.

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“When you’re putting together a way of attacking, you’ve got to think about the players who do have and what attributes they have,” says new attack coach Kenny Lynn.

“The team is changing now with the likes of Aaron leaving. There’s a chance to use the likes of Folau [Fakatava] in different ways in how we attack off No 9, but also vary it up, and also attack one or two passes a little bit wider.

“I see a willingness to attack the line, and I just see guys [Cam Millar and Ajay Faleafaga] who will certainly improve with time.

“I saw that with Ajay over the NPC season [with Otago]. Cam just needs to get consistent time on the field with his body.

“But, certainly with Cam, I see someone who’s a thinker of the game, with a kicking game, but they don’t mind attacking.

“It means that we can do a little bit more from that point of attack.”

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Miller and Faleafaga are both recent New Zealand U20 playmakers who will compete with new recruit and former Welsh international Rhys Patchel for minutes in the 10 jersey. Sam Gilbert has also made an impression at first five-eighth in the 2023 season.

Fakatava’s running game has consistently injected an energy and a different dimension to the Highlanders’ attack when subbed on for Smith later in games, catching defenders around the ruck napping and pressing the line in addition to his snappy deliveries.

The halves will have some new talent in the wide channels to find space for as well, with the additions of Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai. Both outsides offer very elusive threats for different reasons.

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Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens shone in Taranaki’s NPC-winning campaign this year, operating at both fullback and wing.

“I see what he’s done for the Blues and what he did for Taranaki this year. I think he was one of the best in the competition, and he was playing both [positions],” Highlanders coach Clark Dermody said.

Dermody ultimately hinted at his electric newcomer playing the fullback role, while there are no questions over Tavatavanawai’s spot being on the wing.

“They’re two different types of players, but the way defence is now you can have whatever shape you want, but sometimes you just need someone who’s capable of doing something a little bit special,” Lynn continued.

“That’s exactly why we wanted those kind of guys. What we do have in the Highlanders is a bunch of very good, hard-working players who will get the ball and work hard.

“Sometimes you just need a little bit of difference to break it up, but that’s hard to coach.”

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