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Highlanders' season quickly heading south

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Inconsistent combinations sending Highlanders' season south

The Highlanders’ season got off to an inauspicious start back in February when they had to come from behind to pip the Chiefs by three points in Hamilton.

The first game of the year should never be seen as a firm indicator for how the rest of the season will play out; players are rarely match fit, combinations have yet to be tested in pressure situations, coaches are trialling new tactics and, as was the case this year, internationals can sometimes be completely absent.

Of the Highlanders’ All Blacks, only Ben Smith, Liam Coltman and Jackson Hemopo started the match whilst Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt and Aaron Smith rode the pine.

As such, it didn’t come as a huge surprise that the Highlanders found an extra gear in the final quarter of the match and, despite being a man down due to a yellow card, managed to take the victory.

Still, spending three quarters of a match behind on the scoreboard isn’t a great way to start the season – but a win is a win and the Highlanders refocussed to take on the Reds in Dunedin a week later.

Although the Highlanders also managed to win that match, it was also a far from comprehensive display. The Highlanders led 17-nil at one point in the game but the Reds still managed to pull back the score to actually take the lead going into the final quarter, 31-29.

Two wins from two wins wasn’t a bad return for coach Aaron Mauger – but perhaps those wins papered over some of the cracks that, on the back of a five-match winless streak, have become increasingly obvious.

Since the start of March, the Highlanders have lost to the Rebels, Hurricanes (twice) and Blues. They escaped from their matchup with the Crusaders with a draw, but only because the game was called off after the Christchurch shootings. They’ve managed to pick up at least a bonus point in each of those matches but no matter how you look at it, four losses from four matches played is a damning statistic.

Whilst there’s certainly nothing wrong with building into a season as it progresses, the Highlanders don’t actually appear to be getting any better just yet. Fellow New Zealand sides the Blues and the Chiefs both started with a run of losses but now seem to be finding a semblance of form – but the Highlanders have been sliding steadily southwards.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the rest of the season is that there seems to be little consistency in the weekly team selection in three key areas: the loose forwards, first five and the midfield.

Some of this lack of consistency can be attributed to a wealth of talent (in the loose forwards, at least) or injuries, but it’s worth examining these three problem areas for the Highlanders in their season to date.

The Highlanders roster for 2019 includes six loose forwards that have represented the All Blacks – five of whom were used by the New Zealand national team last year. That is an absolute abundance of riches that naturally requires some scrutinised juggling. Between Hemopo, Frizell, Hunt, Whitelock, Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire, the Highlanders could legitimately put out a different trio every week that would, on its day, be considered one of the top combinations in the tournament.

The problem for the Highlanders is that none of these players have really had the chance to cement themselves as integral starters, resulting in some fairly regular chopping and changing.

Of the seven match-days squads announced for the Highlanders in 2019 so far, trios of Frizell-Hunt-Whitelock and Frizell-James Lentjes-Whitelock have both been named twice. Due to the abandoned Crusaders fixtures, only the former combination has actually started in more than one match. In total we’ve seen five different trios used in six matches. Liam Squire has yet to feature due to injury this season so he’ll add another permutation to the mix when he eventually makes his return.

Frizell and co-captain Whitelock have started in four and five matches respectively (appearing together on three of those occasions) but the openside flankers Hunt and Lentjes have basically split their time down the middle.

Complicated and intrusive requirements issued from the national squad made it difficult in the first few weeks for New Zealand teams to regularly field the same players, but even since the initial requirements of no All Black playing more than 180 minutes in the first three weeks came to an end, we’re yet to see one trio take the field more than twice for the Highlanders.

Naturally, the combination needs to be tweaked based on the opposition, but you could argue that all five of the teams that the Highlanders have come up against in 2019 have fairly similar playstyles.

The Highlanders have also retained the same loose forwards from last year, so there’s no real rationale for coach Mauger needing to ‘test out’ players to see who are his top dogs.

With Frizell starting to find the form that earned him an All Blacks jumper last year and Whitelock leading well from the front, we will hopefully see these two run out in many matches together this season – we just need to wait and see who makes the most of their opportunities in the 7 jersey.

The first five position has also been troublesome for the Highlanders this year. Three players, Josh Ioane, Bryn Gatland and Marty Banks have started matches at 10 in 2019 with none of them clearly emerging as the obvious candidate to handle the playmaker responsibilities for the remainder of the season.

Banks, the most experienced of the three, is most revered in the deep south for slotting the drop goal that secured the Highlanders their lone Super Rugby title in 2015. The talismanic figure departed New Zealand at the end of the 2017 season to spend time in Italy and Japan before returning this year to help guide the Highlanders in their post-Lima Sopoaga era.

It wasn’t Banks who started the season at 10, however.

Instead, Auckland-born Josh Ioane guided the team around the park for 80 minutes in their season opener against the Chiefs. Ioane’s performance didn’t set the world alight but it was accomplished enough. Most importantly, he kicked six from six goals, which played a big part in the Highlanders victory (the Chiefs managed a paltry three successes from six attempts).

Ioane debuted for the Highlanders last year against the Hurricanes but played only a bit part in the team’s quarterfinal finish season. As such, 2019 has been his first real opportunity to assert himself as the Highlander’s future first five for the next few seasons.

Having started three games at 10 so far this season, Ioane has had more opportunities than his other challengers for the jersey, but only three matches when you’re eight weeks into the season is still not a lot of time for a young player to develop (especially when he has played only two matches at 10 in a row). In recent weeks, in key local derbies, it’s Banks that has been the preferred flyhalf.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that young players benefit significantly from being eased into Super Rugby – the Crusaders have always managed to do this very effectively. It’s certainly better to give players multiple opportunities over a couple of seasons as they mature than to simply cast them aside when they don’t immediately make an impact (as the Blues have been guilty of in years gone by).

The bigger issue for the Highlanders is that for all his years of experience, Banks isn’t really a mature performer himself. With fewer than fifty Super Rugby caps (and most of his matches spent coming off the bench), Banks is still only really developing his trade as a top-level rugby player – no doubt he and Ioane will both learn countless things off one another, but Banks isn’t exactly the mentor that young players like Ioane are crying out for.

You only need to look to the Highlanders’ most recent loss to see Banks’ inexperience play a big part in their final quarter capitulation. Of the Hurricanes’ two final tries, Banks missed key tackles in the build-up to both (admittedly Ngani Laumape and Ben Lam aren’t the easiest players to bring to ground) but more frustrating for Highlanders fans would have been the poorly judged (or perhaps just poorly executed) kicks that Banks deployed.

Banks, for all the clutch plays he is capable of, is realistically not likely going to be able to guide the Highlanders to higher than a midtable finish – but he has still been preferred to Ioane in the big New Zealand derbies against the Blues and the Hurricanes.

Banks’ latest injury will mean that Ioane is thrust back into the 10 jersey for this weekend’s match against the Crusaders – perhaps the probable upcoming run of matches will give Ioane just the platform he needs to help build his game.

The final part of the selection puzzle that the Highlanders probably haven’t gotten quite right just yet is in the midfield.

Since Mauger took over as the coach at the end of 2017, the pairing of Teihorangi Walden and Rob Thompson has been by far the most-used midfield combination for the southern men. Last year, utilities Matt Faddes and Richard Buckman both spent time in the centres too, but it was the most commonly sighted duo of Walden and Thompson who were trotted out in the elimination match with the Waratahs at the end of the season.

It’s not difficult to see why the pair were used – they are both direct runners who are happy to set up phase play in the middle of the park, but probably more importantly, they’re reliable distributors – important when your key attacking threats like Waisake Naholo, Tevita Li and Ben Smith can work magic in the outer channels when given a little bit of time and space. Thompson, in particular, had been touted by some as a potential All Blacks bolter after a couple of good seasons with the Highlanders.

Mauger, himself a great second five during his playing years, has seemingly had a change of heart when it comes to what he wants from his midfield in 2019.

Thompson made only his third appearance of the season last weekend when he came off the bench against the Hurricanes – an injury suffered against the Reds had prevented him from making any appearances since the third round of the competition. Walden, though fit and available, also started only his third game of the year against the Hurricanes after finding himself losing ground to Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Sio Tomkinson.

It’s believed that Walden, although six-feet-tall and only a few kilos short of the 100-mark, is potentially too small to be taking on some of the more sizeable midfields that are now dominating the competition.

The pairing of Umaga-Jensen and Tomkinson has been used in the match-ups against the Hurricanes and the Blues, two teams with formidable midfields, and have provided the Highlanders with a bit more security and go forward in the centres than they are probably accustomed to.

Again, however, it’s difficult to get a gauge on who Mauger considers the top midfield pairing that the Highlanders have available to them. Various combinations of all four specialist midfielders have been used in the Highlanders’ six games to date with Thompson, Tomkinson, Walden, and Umaga-Jensen starting between two and four matches each. Buckman also started in the most recent fixture but an injury will cease his involvement in the midfield for at least the near future.

Mauger’s ‘horses for courses’ approach may seem a wise tactical move, but Highlanders fans will be concerned that there has been little time for any practised combinations to develop.

Make no mistakes, Super Rugby is a long competition and coaches simply can’t afford to field the same players week in and week out unless they want to see their team burn out before the season comes to an end. There is, however, an argument to be made that the Highlanders’ lack of form this season can be attributed to the general lack of combinations that are being fielded each week.

There’s no easy fix for a team on the slide, but Mauger will be wanting to nail down some important positions in the weeks to come, otherwise, New Zealand’s southernmost team may find the finals a step too far for the first time in six years.

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Inconsistent combinations sending Highlanders' season south