It’s been three months since Super Rugby – or any kind of professional rugby, for that matter – took place.
That’s a long time between drinks, but that’s all set to change this week when the highly-anticipated Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign kicks-off this weekend under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
It’s there where the Highlanders will have the unenviable task of playing hosts to the Chiefs, who were high-flyers in Super Rugby before its suspension 13 weeks ago.
With the likes of Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie and Brad Weber pulling the strings in the backline, and Lachlan Boshier and Aidan Ross providing serious grunt up front, Warren Gatland’s men were sitting in fifth spot with four wins from six outings before the action was brought to a halt.
In stark comparison, the Highlanders were lagging behind in 11th place, securing just one victory from six matches.
That’s left the southerners considered serious underdogs to even challenge for the New Zealand domestic crown, with the TAB paying an incredible $31 for them to emerge as champions at the time of writing.
No doubt the most optimistic punters will take their chances with those odds, but they’ll be hoping for vast improvements from a side that badly underfired in the opening rounds of the original competition.
Many onlookers targeted the blame for the Highlanders’ lacklustre start towards the decision to play All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane out of his regular position to accomodate new recruit Mitch Hunt.
Instead, Ioane was fielded at No. 12 in every match he played between February and March, with the franchise eager to deploy a dual playmaking axis in the five-eighth positions as they endeavoured to shift the ball wide quickly and early.
The old adage of ‘earning the right to go wide’ rang true, though, as the Highlanders frequently leaked tries through interceptions or misplaced passes in defeats to the Sharks, Crusaders, Rebels and Bulls.
The extended time off has given head coach Aaron Mauger and his assistants plenty of time to reflect, reassess and make amendments to their game plan leading into the new competition.
That has led to the decision to reinstate Ioane back in the No. 10 jersey, where he flourished and earned a maiden All Blacks call-up last year.
One-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane's midfield experiment for the Highlanders is over.https://t.co/tIiTL5yis0
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 27, 2020
In doing so, however, Mauger issued a stern warning to his squad’s forward pack, who he believes made Hunt’s task of guiding his team around the park a difficult one.
“I think Mitch Hunt probably copped a lot of flak through that period that was unjust,” Mauger said last month.
“When your forward pack’s on the front foot, the game’s a whole lot easier and we didn’t provide that as a pack, so we made our No. 9’s and No. 10’s job really hard in that early part of the season, so all the things we know Mitch is capable of as a class fly-half he wasn’t able to always deliver.”
“The challenge for us is to make sure our pack’s firing, and that’s where we’ve put a bit of accountability on those boys.”
For all the benefits that the Highlanders are set to reap from Ioane’s shift back to first-five from the midfield, that hasn’t been the biggest talking point of the coronavirus-enforced lay-off for the Dunedin club.
That mantle belongs to All Blacks wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, who was a shock signing as injury cover for the likes of Connor Garden-Bachop, Thomas Umaga-Jensen and the injury-cursed Tevita Nabura last month.
The 13-test World Cup-winning star joins the club after a deal with French side Toulon fell through due to the ongoing rehabilitation of a problematic shoulder.
The former Hurricanes flyer’s inclusion in the squad will add both excitement and experience to a team that is lacking the latter attribute following the exodus of an array of long-serving players last year, as well as their skipper James Lentjes, who succumbed to a season-ending injury against the Rebels.
The outside back department was hit particularly hard, with Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo among those to have departed, so the addition of both Milner-Skudder and All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi will be warmly welcomed.
The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until next year has allowed Koroi to come into the side a season earlier than expected after the 22-year-old signed a three-year deal with the club that was set to commence in 2021.
“It’s awesome to have a few new faces in after the break,” Highlanders midfielder Teihorangi Walden said last month.
“Those boys coming into our environment have added a lot already. Skudz and Vils, they’re awesome, they’re electric on the field and they’ve definitely added into our environment already and I’m sure they’ve got plenty more to offer too.”
That means there will be plenty of competition for places in the outside backs, with Jona Nareki, Josh McKay, Michael Collins Tima Fainga’anuku, Ngane Punivai, Scott Gregory and Chris Kuridrani also vying for starting spots in the back three.
“It’s good, though, that stuff,” Collins told RugbyPass of the fight on his hands to retain his place at fullback last week.
“That’s going to bring out the best in everyone in those positions, so even if you’re not playing, you realise you’ve got to step up every training.
“I think it’s pretty exciting, it’s already created a lot of buzz, so those two [Milner-Skudder and Koroi] are going to do pretty well.”
Milner-Skudder’s involvement in Saturday’s clash against the Chiefs remains unlikely as he continues to work through his shoulder issues, while whether Koroi takes part remains to be seen.
Either way, Mauger is upbeat about his side’s chances in front of what’s set to be a packed crowd this weekend.
“The Chiefs, they’re high on energy, obviously got a good buzz in their environment, they’ve played some good footy,” he said.
“They’re a pretty dangerous side. They’ve got some threats. Damian McKenzie’s in good form, Aaron Cruden has been outstanding for them in those early rounds, so I’m sure they’ll be looking to pick up where they left.
“They like to keep the ball alive, that’s certainly some parts of their game that we’ve looked at, so I’m sure we can expect the same, especially when they come down here under the roof, they’ll be excited about playing with dry ball – as will we.”
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