OPINION: News of Matt Faddes’ imminent departure to Irish Pro14 club Ulster will be a tough pill to swallow for the Highlanders.
Not only does it mean that one of their most underrated backline players will no longer be part of the franchise, but it also means that the Dunedin side have been left severely depleted in the outside backs.
Joining Faddes to trade in Super Rugby for the riches of European club rugby are Highlanders legends and All Blacks stars Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo, who are leaving to link up with French Top 14 side Pau and English Premiership team London Irish, respectively.
Those three departures alone leaves the Highlanders with big gaps to fill in the upcoming off-season, but they might not be the only concerns for head coach Aaron Mauger.
Young speedster Josh McKay is the only outside back to be contracted through to the 2020 campaign, with Tevita Li, Tevita Nabura and Richard Buckman still yet to decide their playing futures.
It’s common practice within the Highlanders set-up to sign players on short-term contracts for one or two years, leaving many players off-contract come the end of the season with no structured academy system or U20 side in place to supplement positions in the main squad for the long-term.
This forces Mauger and his assistants to bank on the abilities of players based on their Mitre 10 Cup performances, or their existing allegiances to the franchise.
Li, Nabura and Buckman all have varying degrees of allegiances to the Highlanders, dating back to between 2014 and 2017, but none can be certain of retaining their places in next year’s squad.
Between his time with the Blues and Highlanders, Li would be entering his seventh full season of Super Rugby after first bursting onto the scene with a debut for the former club as an 18-year-old high school student in 2013, but has failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him as a youngster.
Buckman, affectionately known as ‘The Barracuda’, has cult hero status in Highlanders country for his ability to punch above his weight with players who supposedly have far more ability and a much bigger reputation than himself, but a season-ending Achilles injury is the most recent knock in an injury-riddled spell over the past three seasons.
At the age of 29, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make his off-season move to Japanese Top League club Kobe Steelers a permanent one to cash in on his talents before his body prevents him from doing so.
After signing with the Highlanders on a two-year deal at the end of 2017, Nabura has endured a difficult time in Dunedin.
He only made two appearances last year, with a flying kick into the face of Waratahs wing Cam Clark last May derailing his season as he was handed a long-term ban.
Undoubtedly eager to make amends for an abrupt end to 2018, a knee injury sustained in the pre-season means he will take no part at all for the entirety of 2019, and will have only this year’s Mitre 10 Cup to prove his worth for a contract extension.
Once this year’s Super Rugby campaign finishes, it’s going to be a tricky assignment for Mauger and his henchmen to decide who will stay and who will go of the remaining three uncontracted outside backs.
What’s certain right now, though, is that the services of Faddes, Naholo and Smith will no longer be available, meaning it’s never too early to begin the search for their replacements.
Coincidentally, there are three clear-cut options with significant ties to the Highlanders region that fit the bill: Jona Nareki, Vilimoni Koroi, and Michael Collins.
The former two are contracted with the All Blacks Sevens side, with Nareki turning down the chance to join the Hurricanes this year in favour of playing the abbreviated version of the game.
His reasoning behind that will likely come down to the fact the he and Koroi, a product of the Highlanders apprentice programme, will want to establish themselves as integral squad members ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
That shouldn’t prevent them from playing Super Rugby, though.
Rieko and Akira Ioane both played for the Blues in 2016 during weeks where the All Blacks Sevens weren’t preparing for that year’s Rio Olympics.
The same could be applied to Nareki and Koroi, both of whom have lit up matches when taking to the field for Otago over the past couple of Mitre 10 Cup seasons.
Both players are fit and have pace to burn – attributes that allow them to thrive in the World Sevens Series – but also have key individual skills.
Nareki has displayed an outstanding finishing ability on multiple occasions for the Razorbacks, while Koroi has shown that his role as a playmaker in Sevens is easily translatable to XVs.
Being based in Dunedin for Mitre 10 Cup commitments for around six months of the year could be enough to sway them towards the Highlanders, and, at 21-years-old, both would be prized assets given their youth and ability.
Collins is another who could find himself in Highlanders colours next year.
Coming off contract with the Blues, the 25-year-old has found himself out of favour with new head coach Leon MacDonald.
A starting fullback under the stewardship of Tana Umaga in 2017 and 2018, Collins has featured just three times in 2019, with his last appearance coming from off the bench against the Waratahs in round eight, six weeks after his only other two outings.
He was admittedly below-par in the opening rounds of the competition against the Crusaders and Sharks, but he adds diversity to the skill set of the outside backs.
If McKay is an out-and-out goal-kicking speedster, Nareki a freakish finisher and Koroi an electric playmaking option, then Collins brings solidity, maturity, experience and highly-valued communication skills of which Umaga lauded during his time as Blues head coach.
Safe under the high ball and possessing a good boot, Collins was responsible for directing his backline on defence, something of which the Blues lacked before his arrival in Auckland.
That role came through years of leadership experience within the Otago set-up, a side of which he debuted for in 2012 and captained to Ranfurly Shield success last year.
The only point which could hinder Collins moving back to Otago – the region of which he was born and raised in – on a full-time basis is that he is eligible for both England and Wales through his grandparents.
It’s up for debate as to whether he is good enough to play for either of those test sides, but if an English or Welsh club came calling with a seductive salary, as was the case when he joined Scarlets in 2015, then it would be inevitable to see him join Faddes and Naholo in the United Kingdom.
But, as Collins reaches the prime years of his career, this could be his last chance to represent his home franchise, and with Smith’s exit freeing up the No. 15 jersey, there’s no better opportunity to re-establish his credentials as a Super Rugby starter.
The outside back department is just one of the various impending positional holes that the Highlanders will need to plug once their 2019 campaign concludes, but it is certainly one of the most significantly impacted areas of the squad in terms of outgoing players.
With 2020 shaping up to be a tumultuous season due to a raft of star players heading overseas – including Smith, Naholo and Faddes – the addition of Nareki, Koroi and Collins should ease that loss of experience, while maintaining an eye for the future.
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