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The highly-touted Gore-product competing to become the Highlanders' next 10

By Adam Julian
Otago player Cameron Miller is seen to my medical staff during the round three Bunnings NPC match between Southland and Otago at Rugby Park Stadium, on August 21, 2022, in Invercargill, New Zealand. (Photo by James Allan/Getty Images)

There were more players from Gore in the 2022 New Zealand Under 20s than there were from Auckland.

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Hayden Michaels, Finn Hurley, and Cam Millar were all members of the ‘Baby Blacks’ who trounced Fiji (74-5), Argentina (32-9), and Australia (69-12) to capture the Oceania Championship on the Gold Coast.

All three players have already featured in the NPC and are determined to join the likes of Ethan de Groot, Damian McKenzie, Justin Marshall, and Jimmy Cowan as All Blacks from the small, “Brown Trout Capital of the World.”

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Millar appears most likely to advance his cause in 2024. He played four games for the Highlanders in Super Rugby Pacific 2023 with three victories against the Western Force (43-35), Fijian Dura (57-24), and Moana Pasifika (45-17).

Flanker Michaels is newly contracted while Hurley, a first-five or fullback, didn’t make the initial squad after just a single appearance last year.

Millar will compete for the Highlanders’ 10 jersey with debutant Ajay Faleafaga and former Welsh international Rhys Patchell (22 Tests). What will the 21-year-old, who has scored 94 points in 15 appearances for Otago bring to the Highlanders?

“My kicking is a strength. I think I play with good control and can manage a game. My biggest growth area is to become more of an attacking threat,” Millar told Rugby Pass.

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There’s no doubt Millar can kick. In 2020 he was a prolific scorer for the Otago Boys’ High School First XV that won the Otago Secondary Schools Championship.

In 2021 he kicked six penalties to help Taieri seal a 21-17 win over Green Island in the Dunedin premier club final at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Millar’s six penalties were the most in a final since Hayden Parker banged over six for Taieri in its 51-6 win over University in 2014.

“My house in Gore was next to the school field.  I wanted to be Daniel Carter. I spent hours down there kicking,” Millar reflected.

“I got used to kicking in front of crowds from a young age. Everyone knows if you miss a kick in an NPC game. In Gore, everyone knows you if you miss a kick, so you better get it right.”

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The Highlanders attack in Super Rugby Pacific 2023 wasn’t in sync. Statistics, provided by Opta, showed that the Highlanders were among the weakest teams in key attacking metrics, ranking 11th in carry metres, line breaks, and defenders beaten.

In addition, they were averaging more than 13 turnovers a game and scored the lowest tally of points by a New Zealand side. Millar is acutely aware of the need for the Highlanders to be better.

“It was a tough season last year but as a young player coming through it was valuable to learn how good you’ve got to be at this level. There is definitely a different mindset this year. We have to up the ante,” he said.

“The new coaches, especially Kenny [Kendrick] Lynn, have changed a few of our philosophies around attack and we have got some new strength and conditioning coaches, so we are training, with less time on the bikes and rowers, and doing more hard work on the field.”

Legendary halfback Aaron Smith is gone. He featured in 94 of the Highlanders’ 186 wins in competition history. Smith played a record 185 games for the franchise. The way the southerners attack will be vastly different and demand greater responsibility on others.

Millar has worked closely with former All Blacks first-five and Highlanders coach Tony Brown, who confirmed he’s joining the coaching staff of the Springboks.

“Browny is an awesome coach. His attention to detail is massive.  His analysis of opponents is comprehensive. I learned so much about being across key roles and the game plan,” Millar acclaimed.”

“Browny is an attacking coach. He encourages you to play what’s in front of you and is brilliant at breaking down the opposition’s defence. It’ll be interesting to see how he goes in South Africa.”

Pre-season indicates the Highlanders will be better. So far, they’ve beaten Moana Pasifika (36-28) and the Hurricanes (52-19). The Hurricanes match was played over three half-hour periods with unlimited subs.

Tasman winger Timoci Tavatavanawai was especially damaging against the Hurricanes. Sam Gilbert thrived as a playmaker at second five.

The Highlanders head to Methven next week to face the Crusaders for their final trial. The Hurricanes host Moana Pasifika at the New Zealand Campus of Innovation and Sport in Upper Hutt.

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