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The Highlanders are yet to hit rock bottom, but their rise will be immense

By Ned Lester
Aaron Smith shakes hands with Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders after winning the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Moana Pasifika and Hurricanes at Mt Smart Stadium, on March 25, 2023, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

After sliding slowly down the Super Rugby standings in recent seasons, 2023 has seen the Highlanders fall out of the top eight and miss the playoffs. The premature end to the season also spells the end of one club legend’s tenure with the team, as well as another All Black and more of their promising talent.


So how bad will things get for the Highlanders and how bright is that light at the end of the tunnel?

Observing the competition, Super Rugby has some young teams on the rise. The Drua have made huge strides to emerge as a competitive team in just their second year in Super Rugby. Both the Australian sides who finished below the Highlanders, the Force and Rebels, have young pivots forging a clear direction for their future.

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2024 brings with it a new World Cup cycle and an exodus of veteran players, which is a challenge that all teams will face. The Highlanders though will lose perhaps their greatest-ever representative, Aaron Smith. Smith’s experience as the most capped Highlander and most capped All Black back of all time is irreplaceable and equally, his talent.

Joining Smith at the airport will be All Black Shannon Frizell and All Blacks XV No 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u while Fetuli Paea will also head offshore. The outlook would suggest results will get worse before they get better for the Dunedin side.

The Highlanders have been considered and methodical with their future planning though, prioritising key positions when assembling their squad of the future.

“The Highlanders are going to be rebuilding and they’ve finally realised that they need to invest in recruiting earlier and developing those players in the region,” Former Highlander Joey Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod. “They haven’t done that in the past, but they’ve put some investment in that, it started about three years ago and they will soon see the fruits of that.


“If they can hold on to their young talent then I think they will be in really good stead for the future.

“They’ve got some really good young men coming through that program, I look at Ajay Faleafaga, who’s going to make the New Zealand U20s this year, Cam Millar was a part of the U20s last year,  so two really good young 10s coming through the system. Finn Hurley, a good young 15 who made the U20s last year.

“What’s glaringly obvious is Mitch Hunt had a disappointing season this year. Since Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith, they haven’t been able to find a combination at that 9-10-15, the real spine and the drivers of that Highlanders side. That’s the glaringly obvious part that they’re missing, I believe.”


Folau Fakatava has shown plenty of upside throughout his young career with the Highlanders, the No 9 brings a different flavour to Smith but could be the frontman to an exhilarating young backline in the years to come.


Faleafaga and Millar will battle it out to be the next pillar in that new spine while Hurley will have to challenge Sam Gilbert for the fullback role. Each position has promising talent and enough of it to make for healthy competition.

However, a backline is only as good as the platform they can play on top of. The Highlanders are working their magic there too.

“If you look at a guy like Sean Withy,” Former Blues hooker James Parsons added. ” he’s a player that has got a massive future. Billy Harmon too. It hasn’t been an easy year with injuries for the Highlanders, it’s not as straightforward as people think in terms of skillset.

“You’re always going to be in the contest if you have got that talent around the breakdown. We know they’ve got the ability when healthy, around set piece as well. Ethan de Groot, man, he’s playing some of his best rugby and as I like to say, it’s won up front. There’s some key men that can deliver that for them.”

Withy is one of a number of young forwards making the most of their game time for the Highlanders. 140kg Prop Saula Ma’u is starting to profit from consistent minutes while lock Fabian Holland and loose forward Nikora Broughton have impressed in their brief appearances.

Time will tell just how long it takes for the Highlanders’ new crop to reach their potential. A rebuild of this proportion is unusual for a New Zealand Super Rugby team, it may fail to fire, but it might just ignite a new dynasty.


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Otagoman II 376 days ago

Some green shoots but will they be tended to properly by the coaching group? They had a 10 to lead them but they stuffed him around in different positions and got rid of him. that was Josh Ioane. This mess is the result of Tony Brown's tenure, who didn't even really want the job.

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