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Super Rugby Pacific 2024: Highlanders are the off-season champions

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The RugbyPass Round Table writers answer the big questions ahead of the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season. Ben Smith (BS), Finn Morton (FM) and Ned Lester (NL) weigh in on a range of topics and make their predictions for the season.

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Who will be the best signing/transfer of the season?

Ben Smith: The Chiefs get an A for retention by locking in experienced players for the long haul. They didn’t have any ‘marquee’ signings on the open market, instead securing their key players like Damian McKenzie, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Anton Lienert-Brown, Shaun Stevenson, Quinn Tupaea, Cortez Ratima for 2024 and beyond.

The Crusaders went and bought the best gain line centre in the competition in Levi Aumua from Moana Pasifika who is a chance at being the best signing. Veteran Ryan Crotty is also back to provide stability in the midfield after they lost hybrid wing-centre Leicester Fainga’anuku and Jack Goodhue.

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The Hurricanes were not big winners on the market with any headline-grabbing transfers. Brad Shields might turn out to be a savvy signing, already named team captain, while former Highlanders prospect Ngani Punivai could find his footing in the capital. After losing Dane Coles to Japan, Julian Savea to Moana Pasifika, Ardie Savea to sabbatical and Owen Franks, the Hurricanes have been hit by high-profile departures.

The Blues weren’t splashy on the open market either, but they did snag All Black tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao from the Chiefs. Seven of their nine signings were under 23 years old, adding more youth to the roster. They have some sleepers on the books already, players who can turn into stars of the future like Zarn Sullivan, Corey Evans, Anton Segner, and Sam Darry.

There aren’t many players in the Blues squad in the middle tier age bracket between 25-28. Just 13 players fit that description. It’s either young talent or veterans turning or over 30.

The Highlanders get an A for their recruitment class of 2024 and are officially crowned the off-season champs after big wins through the pre-season.

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After a dreadful year last year they have gone to market and addressed many concerns on the roster, signed a bunch of young players coming through their development systems, while at the same time have brought back former head coach Jamie Joseph.

They required a clean out and didn’t shy away from doing so. Many players have moved on, including All Blacks Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell.

The Mitch Hunt era didn’t pay off, now they have two New Zealand U20 prospects, Ajay Faleafaga and Cam Miller, to compete with Welsh international Rhys Patchell for the No 10 jersey.

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Former Crusaders No 8 Tom Sanders is an underrated signing, bringing the loose forward back from Japan. After losing Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u they needed to bolster the back row depth.

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Out wide they signed fullback prospect Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and centre Tanielu Tele’a from the Blues, two impact players that have looked good in pre-season. But the boom signing is Fijian Timoci Tavatavanawai from Moana Pasifika, one of the hardest men to tackle in Super Rugby.

Tavatavanawai is the dark horse pick for best transfer of the year. At 25-years-old the winger has plenty in the tank and is already dominate at Super Rugby level. He finished second in defenders beaten last year but was on one of the worst performing teams.

On the end of the right backline Tavatavanawai will be one of  the top five try scorers. Time will tell if the Highlanders is that place, but early pre-season form suggests it is.

Finn Morton: The Highlanders’ new trio of Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai and former Wales international Rhys Patchell could all make some noise in their colours in 2024. Especially Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Tavatavanawai, who could both push for All Blacks honours on the back of a strong campaign with the Highlanders.

Across the Tasman, if you’d consider this a signing, Junior Wallaby Harry McLaughlin-Phillips could establish himself as a star of tomorrow after being promoted from the Queensland Reds Academy. There’s a lot to like about so many players.

But there’s one man who stands out above the rest; one player who has already proven himself to be a hard-hitting, no-nonsense kind of talent who could very well be an All Black in foreseeable future. That man is Crusaders centre Levi Aumua.

Aumua, who played two seasons with Moana Pasifika, scored five tries last season, including a double away to the Crusaders in Round Seven. With an imposing frame, a clean pair of heels and a frighteningly determined focus on the field, there’s not much to dislike about Aumua’s game.

Ned Lester: Brad Shields was the signing the Hurricanes needed. The fact that he’s been named the captain makes his the best signing of the season.

Without the leadership of Ardie Savea and Dane Coles, there wasn’t a clear cut favourite to lead the team in 2024, but Shields’ experience lends a needed voice to the playing group and specifically the forward pack.

While additions like Levi Aumua for the Crusaders, Timoci Tavatavanawai for the Highlanders and Ben Donaldson for the Force add plenty of firepower, Shields is taking on the most responsibility on and off the field and servicing the biggest need.

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