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'They could've kept him but they didn't': Losing All Black first five hasn't helped Highlanders

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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A Kiwi pundit has pinpointed the loss of one-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane as a key reason behind the winless start to Super Rugby Pacific the Highlanders have endured this season.

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The southerners dropped to their fifth consecutive loss from as many games against the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday as they continue to search for answers in a challenging 2022.

That losing streak is the worst start to a campaign the Highlanders have had since their ill-fated 2013 season, whereby they finished second-last with three wins from 16 matches.

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One key difference the Highlanders have faced this season compared to recent years is that they are without Ioane, who took up a one-year deal with the Chiefs this season being released by the Dunedin-based side by mutual consent last year.

In his place, the Highlanders have used Mitch Hunt, the franchise’s vice-captain who has dominated the No 10 jersey since joining the side from the Crusaders ahead of the 2020 season.

The Highlanders tried to fit both playmakers into the team, first as a 10-12 pairing under former head coach Aaron Mauger before current boss Tony Brown shifted Ioane to fullback upon his return to the franchise last year.

Neither of the two coaches were able to field both players in the same backline with consistent success, though, leading to Ioane’s premature departure from the Highlanders.

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Speaking on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, New Zealand pundit and commentator Ken Laban labelled Ioane’s absence as a defining factor as to why the Highlanders have struggled to generate wins this year.

“In 2021 the Highlanders played 14 games with eight wins and six losses. Now in 2022, they are 0-5,” Laban highlighted.

“I just want to make the observation that last year, in 14 of those games, Josh Ioane was either at 10, 15 or came off the bench, and he’s not there this year.

“They could’ve kept him but they didn’t.

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“I think if you are looking for another smart player – I know he has only had a brief cameo at All Black level – but we know how good he is, his footwork is, what a fabulous player he is, with a solid kicking game.

“I just wonder in their quiet moments, would they be ruing the fact that they let Josh Ioane leave and go to the Chiefs?”

Their loss to the Blues was the second time in as many matches the Highlanders had fallen to their Auckland rivals, but ex-All Blacks star Mils Muliana told The Breakdown that he remains unconvinced by the club he won the 2003 Super Rugby title with.

“I’m still not [convinced]. I think there is still a lot to go,” Muliana said.

“To be totally honest, they haven’t produced a really clinical display albeit for that first 60 minutes against the Hurricanes, and they ended up losing that so I still think there is plenty to come from them.”

The Blues now face a challenging schedule where they will turn around and face Moana Pasifika on Tuesday to make up for lost fixtures that were postponed earlier in the year due to Covid. Muliana noted that stretch of games will be tough.

“The inaccuracies are still there, the next couple of weeks is going to be big for them because they have got back-to-back games. I don’t want to use the word rotate, but how they pick their squads,” he told The Breakdown.

“The challenge is can they get up physically, because we’ve seen how Moana Pasifika have got up in the last couple of weeks.”

Former All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan thought the Highlanders were better against the Blues after what has been an “average” showing so far this season.

“The Highlanders have been average, but actually I thought they showed a little bit of the old Highlanders the other night,” Kirwan said.

“They didn’t make a lot of mistakes, they hung in the game, they started to attack with a bit more purpose, Aaron Smith started running with the ball putting pressure on around the ruck.”

Kirwan added that the Blues are still missing the “killer instinct” to deliver the knockout blow in games and that they need to score one more try than they have been to build a big enough buffer to avoid being chased down.

“Beauden going off, the Blues had a little bit of disruption, they need to just score that extra try when they’ve got the opposition under the pump and they’re just coming up short,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.

“I think in Super Rugby, if you get above 15 points [on your opponent], it’s hard to recover. Anything below, teams can recover. Do they need a little more killer instinct? Yeah, I agree, but they are showing signs.

“In the past, they would’ve lost there under the roof in Dunedin and they’ve come out and won those. For me, they are on the right track and looking exciting.”

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