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Is it only up from here? The big questions for the Highlanders to answer in 2024

By Ned Lester
Folau Fakatava and Aaron Smith of the Highlanders. Photos by Joe Allison/Getty Image and Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

No Super Rugby team has had the turnover in talent that the Highlanders have had heading into the 2024 season.


A total of 16 players departed the club at the end of an unsuccessful 2023 campaign, including two-thirds of their All Blacks stocks in Shannon Frizell and Aaron Smith.

Ethan de Groot is the club’s last remaining international player, but for a team with an average age of just 24, the focus will be not on where they are now, but on where they can get to by the season’s end and beyond.

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In order to gauge the team’s potential, there are some questions to be answered in 2024.

How high is Folau Fakatava’s ceiling?

Highlanders fans would be forgiven for falling into a dream where the Aaron Smith era would last forever, and their team would be eternally fed by the precision of New Zealand’s greatest halfback.

But all of a sudden, a dozen years feels like it slipped by in the blink of an eye and the future of a now iconic jersey rests on the shoulders of young Folau Fakatava.

Of course, it’s not just the Highlanders’ No. 9 jersey that Smith is vacating, and Fakatava can compete to return to the black jersey he donned twice back in 2022.

The skillset of the 24-year-old promises something of a middle ground between current All Blacks Finlay Christie and Cam Roigard, with the former being a more traditional passing halfback and the latter offering a modern running option.


Finally in a starting role, Fakatava’s development over the recent seasons under the mentorship of Smith will come to the fore, and so too will his durability after multiple ACL injuries.

With the youthful talent in the halves at the club, there is potential for Fakatava to build a long-lasting and electric combination with one of their recent New Zealand U20 playmakers.

Which playmaker will get the backline on song?

There are three prospects for the Highlanders’ 10 jersey in 2024; Rhys Patchel offers the experienced option and is the most likely to be given the starting nod to start the season, while youngsters Ajay Faleafaga and Cam Millar will relish any playing time that comes their way.


Sam Gilbert is the utility option, having played his best rugby at fullback in recent seasons but has also slotted in all over the backline, including at 10.

Head coach Clark Dermody will be deliberate and considered in his management of Millar and Faleafaga, eager to see them get the most out of their relationships with Patchel, as was with case with Freddie Burns last season.

It’s unlikely either of the youngsters will be ready to push for a starting role in 2024, but they have both been around the squad while working their way through the high-performance program and that familiarity and chemistry will always count for something.

How powerful is the Jamie Joseph factor?

Joseph’s success with the Highlanders during his head coaching reign from 2010-16 was historic, leading the club to its lone Super Rugby title in 2015 while nurturing the talents of some of the club’s great players.

Having returned to the club in 2024 on a four-year deal after coaching Japan at two World Cups, Joseph will be heavily involved in player management and begin mentoring Clark Dermody.

Joseph’s presence will no doubt bring an experienced perspective to team discussions, but how well can the club integrate his expertise into Dermody’s vision?

Both hold immense value, so streamlining the two will be key to the club’s evolution over the coming seasons.


What’s their timeline?

With the aforementioned average age of 24, how quickly can this new group of Highlanders players be expected to compete with the competition’s heavyweights?

There are two great benefits to the club’s current youth.

First is that Ethan de Groot has been the only player on All Blacks rest during the opening months of pre-season, meaning Clark Dermody has had all but one of his key personnel in camp as they’ve been building up for the season, while other teams are missing a significant chunk of not just their team but leadership group.

Secondly, the players coming through are locals, fresh from the recently established high-performance program and eager to represent their region.

These factors are important to establishing a grounded team environment and a sense of resilience within a group that is likely in line for some dark days before they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It may not be results that give the best insights into how far off the team is from a playoff birth, but watching the games for those glimpses of potential while their future stars find their feet on the Super Rugby stage.

How profitable can their high-performance program be?

The Highlanders’ club neighbours, the Crusaders, have set the bar for what a productive academy looks like, and having just established a program of their own in 2020, the Highlanders look to have been taking notes.

There’s no question, the region produces talent. But only now is the club seeing that talent properly nurtured in their own backyard.

The first graduates of the new high-performance program are starting to filter into the squad now and so all will be revealed; just how well is the program setting the next generation up for success?

Should the likes of Faleafaga and Miller, as well as promising talents like Fabian Holland and Saula Mau take the step up in ’24 and look to be on a fast track to serviceable Super Rugby minutes, that could well put this team’s rebuild and future prospects into a whole new perspective.


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