It’s not unusual to see a player leave a team where they’ve struggled for game time, or struggled for form, and suddenly come alive in a new environment. The Highlanders, in particular, have been experts in the past at turning journeymen into world-beaters.
Malakai Fekitoa made just one appearance for the Blues in 2013 before signing with the Highlanders a year later and then made his All Blacks debut that same season.
Likewise, Liam Squire had enjoyed some success with the Chiefs prior to his shift south but hadn’t established himself as a mainstay in the pack. In his first season with the Highlanders, however, his newly adopted side were crowned Super Rugby champions.
Cult figures Ash Dixon and Marty Banks, meanwhile, started their Super Rugby careers with the Hurricanes but didn’t find great success until they relocated to the Highlanders.
Fans of New Zealand’s southernmost franchise will be hoping that new head coach Tony Brown can work similar magic with new recruits Billy Harmon, Fetuli Paea and Solomon Alaimalo – but it may actually be a departed Highlander that ends up making the most waves in 2021.
Cantabrian Josh McKay was lured south by the Highlanders in 2018 and, at the time, his signing was rightly hailed as a major coup for the club.
McKay represented Christchurch Boys’ High School in his formative years and, alongside new All Black Will Jordan, terrorised opposition schools during the 2015 competition. McKay notched over 20 tries for CBHS over two seasons in the First XV, primarily while wearing the No 10 jersey, and his attacking capabilities were evident for everyone to see.
He was quickly ushered into the Canterbury academy and made his Mitre 10 debut in 2017, scoring seven tries throughout the season. With the likes of George Bridge, Braydon Ennor, Israel Dagg, David Havili and McKay’s former schoolmate Jordan already signed up, there was no room for McKay at the Crusaders for 2018 – and the Highlanders snapped him up.
Few minutes were on offer for McKay in his debut Super Rugby year, but coach Aaron Mauger was still compelled to sign the young outside back up for another two years, keeping the speedster in Dunedin until the end of last year.
Despite continually proving his prowess for Canterbury, including scoring 11 tries in the 2019 provincial competition, McKay still struggled for game time with the Highlanders and was ultimately not offered a new contract at the end of last year.
Instead, the Highlanders persevered with the likes of Sam Gilbert, Scott Gregory and Tima Fainga’anuku – men who weren’t even in the squad at the start of the season.
Some men just can’t seem to catch a break – while others have been picked more on promise than anything they’ve shown on the park to date. Who were the winners and losers from the NZ 2021 #SuperRugby squad unveilings?https://t.co/oTydDYluC9
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 3, 2020
Speaking to Stuff last year, McKay confirmed he’d not been re-signed by the Highlanders and that he was working on the physicality required of a Super Rugby wing.
“I’m not with the Highlanders next year, I’ve not got any Super,” he said. “At the moment, I’m just focussing on Canterbury and if something pops up through playing well then something pops up.”
Nothing did pop up at the time, however, and when the Super Rugby squads were announced in December, McKay’s name was nowhere to be found.
It appears that the last laugh may be with McKay, however, with the former Highlander now joining the Crusaders ranks for the Super Rugby Aotearoa season as injury cover for Braydon Ennor.
With the pre-season now in full-swing, McKay will be competing with fellow injury replacement Rene Ranger as well as Crusaders regulars Sevu Reece, David Havili, Will Jordan and Leicester Fainga’anuku for spots in the back three – but Crusaders strength and conditioning coach Simon Thomas has no reservations about McKay’s potential.
“He’s managed to put on a little bit of muscle over the off-season and get himself to a good playing weight,” Thomas told Stuff, indicating that physicality might not be a problem for the McKay in 2021.
“Josh has done an awesome job. He’s got an opportunity and really worked hard towards it. With the weight he’s put on, but the speed he’s still running, he’s in a really good space to deliver for us when he gets an opportunity to play.
“Which he needs to, because there’s a fair bit of competition in the outside backs here. He’s made a good start.”
Will Jordan has regularly been involved in rugby tug-of-wars between rival teams.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 29, 2020
‘A fair bit of competition’ may be somewhat of an understatement – but we’ve seen injury replacements emerge as starting players by season’s end on more than one occasion.
Most recently, Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa’i managed to earn an All Blacks call-up in 2020, despite only signing with the Chiefs part-way through the season.
Crusaders wing Sevu Reece also went from a Crusaders late addition to a World Cup starter in 2019 – which shows there’s a definite pathway for McKay to get his professional career back on track.
And if McKay does prove the doubters wrong and fly high for the Crusaders, it could mark the first real misstep in the Highlanders’ contracting approach for the last few years. Of course, some players simply thrive better in different environments and often it’s the motivation from being cut that allows a player to realise their potential – perhaps the Highlanders have just done exactly what McKay has needed to come of age.
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