Over the past week, we’ve tried to identify the best players from the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders from over the last 10 years in an attempt to name each franchise’s respective teams of the decade.
In similar fashion to the Chiefs and Hurricanes, the 2010s was a breakthrough period for the Dunedin-based club, as under the tutelage of Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, the Highlanders claimed what remains their only Super Rugby title to date in 2015.
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The year before that, the side made the competition play-offs for the first time in over a decade, and they have now featured in the Super Rugby knockout stage every year since 2014 – a record feat for the men from Forsyth Barr Stadium.
In what can only be described as the most successful 10-year period in the side’s history, plenty of legends have been born both on and off the field, and it’s no surprise that many of them will feature the Highlanders’ team of the decade.
Highlanders Team of the Decade
1 – Daniel Lienert-Brown
After just two Super Rugby outings for the Crusaders in 2014, Daniel Lienert-Brown was drafted into the Highlanders set-up by Jamie Joseph a year later as an injury replacement
That shift south proved to be the best move of the 26-year-old’s career, as the older brother of All Blacks midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown went on to play a significant role in the Highlanders’ title-winning 2015 campaign, and has remained with the squad ever since.
A strong scrummager and energetic presence around the park, the 72-cap Highlander breaks into this team of the decade ahead of club stalwarts Chris King and Jamie Mackintosh.
2 – Liam Coltman
Originally from Taranaki, Liam Coltman jetted southwards as a teenager in 2008 with ambitions of completing a physical education degree at the University of Otago after having represented New Zealand at an U17 level.
More than a decade on, the former New Zealand U20 representative will head into the 2020 Super Rugby campaign as one of the Highlanders’ most experienced individuals after attending this year’s World Cup in Japan.
It’s been a gradual but hard-earned rise for Coltman, whose eight test matches in the black jersey have come largely through his industrious performances for the Highlanders, of whom he’s accumulated 102 appearances for since 2013.
While issues remain over his throwing ability at the lineout, his gritty attitude with ball in hand and impressive breakdown work earns him selection ahead of former All Blacks star Andrew Hore and Maori All Blacks skipper Ash Dixon.
3 – Tyrel Lomax
It would be fair to say that the Highlanders haven’t been graced with a plethora of international quality tighthead props over the last 10 years, so it’s only taken Tyrel Lomax two seasons to earn his spot in this side’s No. 3 jersey.
A highly-touted prospect who represented Australia at U20 level, Canberra-born Lomax moved from the Melbourne Rebels in 2017 to link up with the Tasman Mako and Highlanders in a transfer that had much anticipation surrounding it.
The son of former New Zealand rugby league prop John Lomax, it took the 23-year-old just one campaign under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium to warrant a test call-up, with his set piece work and ball-running ability enough to grant him an All Blacks debut against Japan in Tokyo last year.
Those attributes have not only won Lomax selection in this team over the likes of South African journeyman Ross Geldenhuys, and Tongan internationals Siua Halanukonuka and Ma’afu Fia, but they will also be sorely missed in Dunedin as he joins the Hurricanes on a four-year deal next season.
4 – Jackson Hemopo
Like Lienert-Brown, Jackson Hemopo was called into the Highlanders squad as an injury replacement during their successful 2015 season, making a eye-catching debut in a 44-7 dismantling of the Blues at Eden Park.
In the ensuing four years, the 26-year-old’s stocks rose steadily, with an enormous performance in the Highlanders’ famous win over the British and Irish Lions two years ago showcasing the ability and potential he possessed as a defensive and set piece behemoth.
Hemopo was eventually rewarded for his workman-like efforts in Dunedin with an All Blacks debut against France at Forsyth Barr Stadium last year, and the lock – who can cover blindside flanker – has since gone on to accrue five test caps.
A one-club man at Super Rugby level, Hemopo’s place in this team is reward for his development from a fringe player to an international prospect during his time at the franchise, which came to an end this year as he heads to Japan to link up with the Mitsubishi DynaBoars in the Top League.
Hometown hero Brad Thorn is unlucky to miss out after returning to Dunedin for a two-season spell between 2013 and 2014.
5 – Tom Franklin
Similarly to Coltman, regional schoolboy star Tom Franklin moved to Dunedin from the Bay of Plenty in 2009 to study commerce at the University of Otago.
It’s a shift that has paid dividends for the 1.99m, 110kg second-rower, who has gone on to shine at both provincial and Super Rugby level since his first-class debut in 2011.
A maiden appearance for the Highlanders followed three years later, and Franklin went on to play 85 times for the southerners, with his high work rate and solidity at the lineout a valued asset.
However, the Highlanders will be without their key man’s services from next year onwards, as the nine-cap Maori All Black will join fellow Kiwis Dan Carter, Brodie Retallick, Andy Ellis, Richard Buckman and Hayden Parker at the Kobe Steelers in Japan on a permanent deal.
6 – Liam Squire
Injuries and personal issues restricted Liam Squire to making just three outings in a Highlanders jersey in his final season with the club, but the impact he made in the preceding years makes him one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
A move down from the Chiefs ahead of the 2016 season helped him unlock his devastating potential as a damaging ball-runner and staunch defender.
An All Blacks call-up followed the Highlanders’ semi-final exit that year, and the 28-year-old’s explosive exploits on either side of the ball won him 23 tests internationally and 30 Super Rugby caps for the Dunedin club between 2016 and 2019.
Has signed a two-year deal in Japan alongside long-time teammate Marty Banks at NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes in Japan, and leaves the Highlanders as their best blindside flanker of the decade ahead of former All Blacks Adam Thomson and Elliot Dixon.
7 – James Lentjes
James Lentjes was named captain of the Highlanders for the 2020 campaign earlier this week, which is indicative of how valuable he’s become for the franchise since first coming onto the scene four years ago.
As was the case with Lienert-Brown and Hemopo, Lentjes was drafted into the 2015 side midway through their campaign as injury cover.
The 28-year-old would go on to play a starring role that year, and was named as the team’s starting openside flanker in their victorious final win over the Hurricanes.
Born-and-bred in Christchurch, Lentjes has struggled at time to lock down a starting role as others – including one-test All Blacks Dillon Hunt and Gareth Evans and Scotland international John Hardie – were handed opportunities, but a sustained starting run this year has established the veteran of 35 matches as the Highlanders’ premier No. 7.
8 – Nasi Manu
A two-year stint at the Crusaders ended in 2009 as he moved south for more starting opportunities away from future All Blacks captain Kieran Read, and once he got those chances in Dunedin, there was no looking back for the 31-year-old.
Between 2010 and 2015, Manu racked up 65 appearances for the men in blue, gold and maroon, impressing with his leadership qualities and abrasive style of play on both attack and defence.
Has since become something of a cult hero while at Italian PRO14 club Benetton, where he beat testicular cancer to make an unlikely comeback to play for Tonga at this year’s World Cup.
Seven-test All Blacks loose forward Luke Whitelock is unlucky to miss out, as the former Highlanders co-captain was a defensive workhorse during his four-season stay with the team.
9 – Aaron Smith
In a somewhat risky move to take a punt on the man that the Blues rejected in 2010, the Highlanders were rewarded for the capture of the 31-year-old, who superseded Cowan as the franchise’s premier No. 9 in 2012, and was handed an All Blacks debut against Ireland that year.
Smith’s high levels of energy and wickedly crisp passing has made him an integral part of both the Highlanders’ and All Blacks’ set-ups, with the Manawatu native having played 137 times at Super Rugby level and 92 times internationally en route to claiming Super Rugby and World Cup titles in 2015.
Now a vice-captain of the Highlanders, Smith beats out the challenges of Cowan and Japanese star Fumiaki Tanaka to be crowned the club’s halfback of the decade.
10 – Lima Sopoaga
Part of what has made Smith so good for the Highlanders was the partnership that he formed with first-five Lima Sopoaga in the middle of the decade.
It took Sopoaga a while to find his feet at Super Rugby level after first playing as a 20-year-old in 2011, but his rise in form coincided with the Highlanders’ golden run to the title in 2015, and he was recognised for his efforts by being named New Zealand Super Rugby player of the year to add to the All Blacks debut he made against South Africa that season.
His array of silky ball-handling skills and astute kicking both from hand and off the tee made him vital to the team’s chances of success right through until his departure to Premiership club Wasps last year.
With 853 points from 88 Super Rugby outings to accompany his 55 test points from 16 matches, Sopoaga wins the No. 10 jersey ahead of ex-All Black Colin Slade, incumbent Highlanders playmaker Josh Ioane and cult hero Marty Banks.
11 – Patrick Osborne
Two brief spells at the Crusaders and Chiefs between 2012 and 2013 didn’t bring out the best of Fijian wing Patrick Osborne, but that changed when he shifted to the Highlanders in 2014.
Initially forming a wing partnership with Richard Buckman and then Waisake Naholo, the 32-year-old’s rangy athleticism was on full show in four seasons at Forsyth Barr Stadium, as he crossed for 16 tries in 51 appearances.
His departure for the Kubota Spears in 2017 left a hole in the No. 11 jersey that no player has properly filled, but Osborne has continued to shine, to the point where he has made nine test appearances for Fiji over the past three years.
Former All Blacks speedster Hosea Gear also makes a compelling case for selection after scoring 13 tries in 32 matches following his move south from the Hurricanes in 2011.
12 – Richard Buckman
Affectionately known by the Highlanders’ faithful as ‘The Barracuda’, Richard Buckman ingrained himself as a fan favourite during his six seasons with the club.
The 30-year-old utility back came on board as a wider training squad member in 2014, but featured prominently on the right wing all season long as the Highlanders made the Super Rugby play-offs for the first time in 12 years.
Injury saw him miss a large chunk of their spellbinding 2015 campaign, but a return during the finals series as midfield partner to Malakai Fekitoa resulted in Buckman playing arguably his best football for the Highlanders.
His never-say-die defensive attitude, aerial safety and elusiveness with ball in hand made him one of the club’s most revered figures, and that is enough to earn him the second-five spot ahead of four-test All Black Tamati Ellison.
13 – Malakai Fekitoa
When Malakai Fekitoa first burst into the spotlight in 2014, he was one of the hottest properties in New Zealand rugby.
The 27-year-old’s raw power and immense athleticism made him the breakout star of that year’s Super Rugby campaign after he shifted from the Blues to the Highlanders in search of more playing time.
Fekitoa’s barnstorming season earned him selection into the All Blacks, who he earned 24 test caps for until his departure from New Zealand for French club Toulon in 2017.
Now with Sopoaga at Wasps, the 2015 Super Rugby and World Cup champion, who played 65 times and scored 20 tries for the Highlanders, takes the centre spot ahead of Ulster’s Matt Faddes.
14 – Waisake Naholo
As one of the best finishers in Super Rugby, it’s no surprise to see Waisake Naholo included in this team.
Another to escape the clutches of the Blues, Naholo moved to Dunedin in 2015, and became an instant hit at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
He scored 13 tries that year, including one in his side’s grand final win, to top the competition’s try-scoring charts, and subsequently won an All Blacks debut against Argentina, before going on to play a part in New Zealand’s World Cup success in England.
After five seasons of terrorising opposition players with his pace and power on the right wing, Naholo surpassed Jeff Wilson’s record for most tries this year, finishing his Highlanders career with 45 tries from 62 matches.
The 28-year-old, who is now playing in the Premiership for the newly-promoted London Irish, also managed 16 tries in 27 tests for the All Blacks, and is picked ahead of Kade Poki, who excited crowds with his electric showings between 2011 and 2013.
15 – Ben Smith
As the most-capped Highlanders player in the history of Super Rugby, there is no denying the legendary Ben Smith of a place in this team.
After debuting for both the Highlanders and All Blacks in 2009, it wasn’t until the next decade where the 33-year-old really began to impress, as a scintillating campaign for both club and country in 2013 established him as one of the most important players nationwide.
Smith’s fleet-footedness, immaculate composure, leadership and supreme elusiveness all contributed to him becoming Highlanders co-captain with Manu the following year, and without his guidance, it remains to be seen if the franchise would ever have lifted the Super Rugby trophy four years ago.
Smith was also in the thick of the All Blacks’ 2015 World Cup success, and he continued to play a key role for both teams right up until his departure from New Zealand for French side Pau over the past few weeks.
He leaves Dunedin with 153 appearances and 40 tries for the Highlanders, while he also scored 39 tries in 84 tests for the All Blacks, making him a modern-day great of New Zealand rugby.
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