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Southland-product Sean Withy honing his openside craft with Highlanders

By Adam Julian
Sean Withy of the Highlanders looks on during the round 11 Super Rugby Pacific match between Moana Pasifika and Highlanders at Teufaiva Sport Stadium, on May 04, 2024, in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Highlanders have matched their 2023 win total of five with two rounds remaining in Super Rugby Pacific.


The Southerners should make the top eight only needing victory against Fijian Dura on Saturday to secure their passage to the playoffs. The Dura have lost a shocking 22 out of 23 matches on the road with their only away victory in competition history coming against Moana Pasifika (36-34) at Go Media Stadium in Auckland in 2023.

On 13 May, the Highlanders snapped a 19-game winless streak against New Zealand opponents when they defeated the Crusaders 32-29 in Dunedin.

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Sean Withy has appeared in all 12 matches (836 minutes) for the Highlanders in 2024. The openside flanker believes the Highlanders can be a threat if they show greater consistency.

“It was a good game, the Crusaders; big crowd, southern rivals,” Withy laconically told RugbyPass.

“We started well, which has been a problem for us. We built momentum. Cam Millar with his 27 points was pretty special. I’ve been playing with him since the under-14s in Southland. He’s a great kicker, an intelligent player with confidence.”

Millar’s haul equalled the record for most points in a game against the Crusaders. Springbok Derick Hougaard achieved the same total in 2007. The Highlanders record for most points in a game is held by All Blacks fullback Ben Blair who scored 28 points in a 43-7 win against the Bulls in 2005.


Approaching those landmarks appeared improbable after the Highlanders disastrous Australian tour in April where they were whitewashed 31-0 against the Reds and thrashed by the Rebels in Melbourne.

On April 27 the Highlanders only foiled the Force 7-6 in Dunedin. It was possibly the worst spectacle of the season but could be the Highlanders most important win.

“That was two teams low in confidence and desperate. Honestly, if the passes had stuck both sides could have got 30 points.

“I think we turned a corner in Tonga against Moana Pasifika. That was a good win for us in a different environment.


“Tongans just love their rugby. They show their love through food. I think their gratitude and enthusiasm rubbed off on all the boys.

“I’m loving it at the moment. I’m getting big minutes at openside which is my preferred position.

“I think I’m too short to be a genuine lineout option at six. I’m more comfortable at seven where I can get over the ball more often and run out on the edge.”

Withy is a prolific tackler. He topped the tackle count in the Crusaders (23) and Reds (19) matches while he ranked second in the recent Blues (14) and Force (15) fixtures.

Withy attended Southland Boys’ High School. Sean was in the First XV from 2016 to 2017. Both those sides won the South Island championship and attended the National Top Four. In 2016 Southland Boys’ beat Otago Boys’ 32-19 to break their 60-match unbeaten streak in the local competition.

Withy’s brothers Aaron and Taine have also captained Southland’s First XV who are the current National Champions. Southland Boys’ enjoys extraordinarily close links to the Highlanders.

The Dermody family is something of a Southland rugby dynasty. Jason is the head coach of the Southland Boys’ First XV and his brother. Clarke Dermody is the Highlanders coach. Clarke was an All Blacks prop in three Tests in 2006. Jason’s great-great-grandfather was 1893 All Black Graham Shannon. His son Fergus Dermody played 62 games for Southland at lock between 1974 and 1983. His brother and fellow lock Gerald were capped 128 times for Southland and brother Stuart also represented Southland. Jason’s cousins Grant, Sean and Malcom played for Southland and female cousins Emma and Jessica have played in the Farah Palmer Cup.

Southland’s First XV captain in 2023 Gregory Rutledge is the son of a Southland centurion Jason who played for the Highlanders. Jason’s grandfather Leicester Rutledge was an All Black.

Highlanders hooker Jack Taylor’s younger brothers Harry (Otago, NPC) and Jimmy Taylor have been in the Southland Boys’ First XV.

“It was real special Southland winning the Top Four. I remember the first year I went, and we lost to Mount Albert Grammar who won it. They were bigger than the All Blacks. It was a real eye-opener,” Withy said.

“Southland’s win goes to show you can go places with a bit of ticker.”

Withy has played 27 games for the Highlanders and 23 for Otago.

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