With a hefty loss of experience and plenty of youth in their ranks, it would be fair to say the Highlanders looked a shadow of their former selves in 2020.
Only four players who played a part in the club’s maiden Super Rugby title in 2015 were among those who took to the field this year, and the southern men appeared a far cry from their championship-winning predecessors.
Fortunately for the Dunedin franchise, one of the key figures who led them to that crown five years ago has been reinstated as head coach after three years away in various roles both in New Zealand and abroad.
Tony Brown, who acted as Jamie Joseph’s assistant coach in that memorable 2015 campaign, has vacated the head coach role left by Aaron Mauger, who was sacked from the position following a fourth-placed finish in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Returning to the job he briefly held for one season in 2017 before linking back up with Joseph at the Sunwolves and the Brave Blossoms, Brown has brought with him numerous quality signings.
The allure of Brown’s coaching credentials that not only helped bring the Super Rugby trophy to Dunedin, but also got Japan into their first-ever World Cup quarter-final, seems to have made the Highlanders an attractive playing destination yet again.
That’s reflected in the signings of key men in the loose forwards, with Liam Squire and Kazuki Himeno bolstering a back row cohort that already features the likes of Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.
Together, those four will compete for just two spots in the starting side at blindside flanker and No. 8, while the recruitment of Billy Harmon from the Crusaders has put heat on ex-captain James Lentjes to retain his place at openside flanker.
Such depth in a key area of the squad has left Brown excited for the upcoming campaign.
“It’s pretty competitive there. As you know, the attrition on the loose forwards is huge,” he said during the announcement of the 2021 Highlanders squad last Thursday.
As the All Blacks season comes to a close with the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations title in tow, we look back on how members of Ian Foster's squad fared over the course of the year. #AllBlacks #TriNations https://t.co/QusV97DhZb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2020
“I think not too many teams can get through a Super Rugby comp with only using three loose forwards, so I think it’s pretty exciting to have this depth at our hands and it’ll be competitive for spots.”
Squire’s return to the Highlanders, where he established himself as one of the most physical loose forwards in New Zealand between 2016 and 2019, is a particularly eye-catching piece of business.
But, after having undergone treatment for knee and hip injuries that, along with COVID-19, cut short his Top League experience in Japan earlier this year, Brown is wary of not thrusting the 23-test All Black into the deep end too quickly.
“For Squid here, it’s a matter of getting his body right, getting himself back to the condition that he knows he can really compete at the highest level,” Brown said.
“Once he’s got there, then we’re going to get him some game time and sort of manage his load at early stages of the season and try and get him really firing towards the backend.
“For me, and Squid, I reckon he can get back to his best footy and have a real crack at making the All Blacks again.”
As for Himeno, a standout at last year’s World Cup for Japan who can cover all three back row positions, Brown suggested he could provide good cover for Frizell as he eases his way back into action from his All Blacks break at the beginning of the season.
Brown’s precautionary approach with Squire and Frizell could see the 17-test Brave Blossom start on the side of the scrum with Mikaele-Tu’u at No. 8 in the first game of the year against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 26.
Either way, the Highlanders boss seems intent on leaving Harmon and Lentjes to contest the No. 7 jersey.
“He [Himeno] can play all three loose forward positions. Just depending on who’s fit, and how well Shannon comes back from his All Blacks break, [will determine] where we slot Himeno.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2020
“I’m really excited about Billy Harmon coming down and his competition with Jimmy Lentjes. I think that’ll be pretty awesome for us.
“Both will no doubt go at it to try and command that starting spot, so I think those two guys will be our starting sevens initially.”
Other notable additions to the pack include Maori All Blacks prop Josh Hohneck, three-test Wallabies prop front-rower Jermaine Ainsley, and two-cap All Blacks lock Bryn Evans, both returning to New Zealand after stints overseas.
In the case of Ainsley, it’s a homecoming of sorts given he was born in Central Otago and attended school locally, but Brown hopes the 25-year-old can build on his limited international experience to produce his best in Dunedin.
“Jermaine’s obviously an Otago boy, went over to Perth out of school here, he was at Otago Boys’, so he’s just coming home and I don’t see him as a Wallaby, I see him as a Highlander man,” Brown said.
“I’m hoping that he’s going to play his best rugby for the Highlanders, and he’s played international rugby, but I think the best is in front of him, and I’m hoping to get him up and running pretty quickly and see if he can be a dominant tighthead for us.”
Hohneck is also returning to familiar territory, making his way back to the Highlanders after four seasons playing for Gloucester in the English Premiership.
Evans, meanwhile, has spent nearly a decade plying his trade in northern hemisphere club rugby for London Irish, Biarritz and Sale Sharks.
11 years after his surprise call-up to the All Blacks, the 36-year-old is heading to the Highlanders as a direct replacement for Waratahs-bound Jack Whetton.
“I think with a lot of our squad, I really tried to get a lot more experience,” Brown said of the acquisition of Evans.
The first-ever clash between the Maori All Blacks and Moana Pasifika promised fireworks from the kick-off, but the pre-match challenges have set the tone for the match ahead. #MABvMPA #MaoriAllBlacks #MoanaPasifika https://t.co/7h0afipuKq
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 5, 2020
“With Bryn Evans, he’s a bit of a lineout specialist, really smart around defensive lineout, and can bring a little bit of a UK mauling aspect into our footy.
“For us, he’s going to be a bit of a mentoring role for our young locks, and when he does get the opportunity, I know he can play at the highest level, so for me, quite an exciting signing around giving us a bit more experience.”
Just how much game time he receives, however, will depend on the fitness of incumbent second-rowers Josh Dickson and Pari Pari Parkinson, both of whom would have pushed for All Blacks selection were it not for injury, as well as Manaaki Selby-Rickit.
In the backline, one point of concern comes at halfback – not through a lack of depth, but rather that 2021 may act as Aaron Smith’s final season for the franchise with his contract expiring at the end of the year.
Having won everything available to him in his esteemed career in New Zealand, the 97-test veteran may look to greener pastures overseas, but there is a succession plan in place that should have opposition defences on edge.
“One guy who I’ve really through has been one of the best players in the Mitre 10 Cup has been Folau Fakatava,” Brown said of the 20-year-old Hawke’s Bay sensation, who has been part of the Highlanders set-up since 2019.
“I think, in 2021, he’s going to have a real impact on this team.
“I know we’ve got Aaron Smith as our All Black and our starting nine, but I think with the way Folau’s playing, he’s going to start to put a lot of pressure on Aaron Smith, and I think he’ll get a lot more game time, and potentially might see him coming on at the backend of games and being a real threat with ball in hand.”
Further out wide, locking in outside back Solomon Alaimalo on a three-year deal from the clutches of the Chiefs looms as a savvy transfer given the potent attacking threat he poses.
Where he fits into the make-up of the outside backs is uncertain, though, especially as the Highlanders began to flourish towards the end of this season with Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt operating as dual playmakers at first-five and fullback.
For all the promise and strides forward the Wallabies have made under Dave Rennie, they have only one win, two deflating draws and two defeats to show for it. #AUSvARG #TriNations https://t.co/dXYugWxpkv
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 5, 2020
Brown admitted Alaimalo’s preferred position is fullback, and he may have seen a move to the Highlanders as his best chance of playing there while the Chiefs still have Damian McKenzie, Kaleb Trask, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Chase Tiatia on their books.
But, with Hunt sticking around and other fullback options available through Michael Collins, Vilimoni Koroi, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Scott Gregory, there is no certainty the 24-year-old will start from the back initially.
“I think his favourite position is 15, I think he would try and secure that spot, but he is obviously just as lethal on the wing as well, so there’d be a bit of competition there, and it’ll depend on the style of the game we want to play, what role the 15 plays,” Brown said.
“Does he play a bit more like a first receiver, a bit more of a first-five, or do we use him as a bit of a weapon and a bit more of an attacking threat out in the wide channels?”
It’s a bit more clear-cut in the midfield, with Brown talking up two prospects in that position in the week gone by.
Luring two-test Tongan star Fetuli Paea down from the Crusaders, Brown anticipates big things from the 26-year-old, and it’s in the midfield where he could form an especially dangerous partnership with Thomas Umaga-Jensen.
Marking his comeback from a long-term shoulder injury with an impactful display for Otago in the Mitre 10 Cup last month, Brown said the 22-year-old is in top physical condition and could join his twin Peter in contending for the All Blacks.
“He’s turned himself into a bit of a beast,” Brown said of Umaga-Jensen.
“I think he’s weighing in at 113kg and running as quick as a winger, and he’s looking really good in the gym, and obviously only played 20 minutes the other day for Otago, but I think he’s going to have a massive 2021.
“If he can make that centre spot his own, he’s going to be pushing on All Blacks selection, I’m sure.”
Potential Highlanders line-up for first match of 2021 season
1. Ayden Johnstone
2. Ash Dixon (cc)
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Pari Pari Parkinson
5. Josh Dickson
6. Kazuki Himeno
7. James Lentjes
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (cc)
10. Josh Ioane
11. Jona Nareki
12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen
13. Fetuli Paea
14. Solomon Alaimalo
15. Mitch Hunt
16. Liam Coltman
17. Daniel Lienert-Brown
18. Josh Hohneck
19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
20. Billy Harmon
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Michael Collins
23. Vilimoni Koroi
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