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The four-time Super Rugby champion who found a career lifeline at the Highlanders

By Adam Julian
Tom Sanders (R) of the Highlanders is tackled by Jared Proffit of the Chiefs during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Highlanders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on March 23, 2024, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Little River is approximately 30 minutes drive from Akaroa, a tourist destination on Banks Peninsula, and 45 minutes drive from Christchurch.


It is a sleepy place with one school, two churches, and a pub called Little River Inn. The population is under a thousand.

On Saturday two of its most famous citizens celebrated significant rugby milestones.

Black Ferns loose forward Alana Bremner captained Matatu to a 37-17 victory over Hurricanes Poua in her 100th first class match in Christchurch.

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Further south, Tom Sanders played his 50th Super Rugby match for the Highlanders against the Hurricanes in Dunedin.

Sanders evening didn’t go to plan with the Highlanders overpowered by the Hurricanes. Sanders plan in 2024 didn’t involve Super Rugby.

His contract with Tokyo Sungoliath wasn’t renewed and finding work proved harder than expected.

“I was at a crossroads to be honest,” Sanders told RugbyPass.

“How did I end up at the Highlanders? Dave Dillon, who I met up in Japan suggested there was a vacancy at the Highlanders.


“The closed roof at Forsyth Bar Stadium and the possession-based, expansive style of the Highlanders appealed.”

Dillon is the Highlanders defence coach. The former Thames Valley, Bay of Plenty and Waikato flanker was with Kobelco in Japan the last five seasons and led them to a Japan League title in 2018.

Previously Dillon coached the Sacred Heart College First XV in Auckland and was appointed the Chiefs Talent Identification Manager in 2013 ushering in players such as Damien McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown, Shaun Stevenson and Samisoni Taukei’aho.

Sanders has started four matches for the Highlanders in 2024.


“We started well. The tight win against the Waratahs was a confidence booster. We let the game against the Brumbies slip. The slow start against the Chiefs was frustrating,” Sanders said.

“There is belief in the group that we can score points and compete when we’re playing our own game. We’re learning and growing each week.”

Tokyo Sungoliath was a team with plenty of belief. Between 2022 and 2023 they won 27 of 36 games finishing second and fourth in the Japan Rugby League One.

“It was an awesome experience. My second daughter was born over there. Culturally it took me out of my comfort zone. From a rugby perspective it’s getting more physical and competitive. I enjoyed the style of game we played; fast and possession orientated,” Sanders said.

Despite four penalties from Damian McKenzie, tries to Dylan Riley and Marika Koroibete won Saitama Wild Knights the 2022 final by 18-12. Under former All Blacks fullback and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, Saitama was unbeaten in 48 consecutive matches.

Sanders rugby started at the Banks Peninsula rugby club alongside schoolmates. He played briefly with Rugby World Cup-winning Black Fern Chelesa Bremner (sister of Alana).

He attended Lincoln High School and made such an impression in their First XV, and in his first season at Chistchurch’s High School Old Boys, he earned a New Zealand Under 20’s trial in 2014. Twenty minutes was enough to prove he was worthy for national selection.

In 2015 Sanders switched to Lincoln and helped the Rams win their first Canterbury senior championship since 1982.

He debuted for Canterbury who won the NPC Premiership. Sanders made 48 appearances for Canterbury (39 wins) and scored nine tries. He won another NPC Premiership in 2016.

That same year Sanders played 13 games for the Chiefs who made the semis of Super Rugby. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie sought replacements for All Blacks Liam Messam (sevens) and Liam Squire (Highlanders).

Sanders 2017 season was disrupted by injury so he returned to Christchurch. With the Crusaders he played 26 games (22 wins) from 2018 to 2021 and was part of four successful Super Rugby campaigns.

His only try for the Crusaders was ironically scored against the Chiefs. In a 32-19 win in Hamilton in 2020, Sanders stormed 40 meters down the wing and bumped off Damian McKenzie in a coruscating burst.

Sanders started the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa final in Christchurch; a 24-13 win against the Chiefs.

The Crusaders started 2024 with a record five consecutive losses, something unthinkable for Sanders.

“It was a perfect storm for them really, losing so much experience and having an injury crisis at the same time,” Sanders said.

“When I was there the playing group was awesome and the leadership group was really strong. All the big rocks were taken care of so it was easy to go out there and play your own game.”

Sanders has won 38 of his 50 Super Rugby matches and scored five tries.

The Highlanders have the bye this week. Their next assignment in on April 13 against the Rebels in Melbourne.


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1 Comment
Jon 71 days ago

One of the Highlanders 4 opensides in their 23. They really need to get Frizell back, even Renton. Glad the guy is getting rugby though. Looks like a force. Could have squeezed into a JRLO team anywhere in the backline, wonder why they dropped him.

JRK to continue pushing his case as Jordan’s replacement.

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