Why it's not all doom and gloom for the Highlanders in the post-Ben Smith era
The Dunedin franchise are void of 15 players who took part in their 2019 campaign, leaving them with an unprecedented chasm of lost experience and talent.
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As the Highlanders’ most-capped player of all-time, the 84-test former All Black stood as a valued leader for the better part of a decade at both Carisbrook and Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Additionally, Smith’s status as one of the only Highlanders in recent years to be born and raised in Dunedin – or Otago, for that matter – resonated strongly among the team’s staunch fan base.
That, combined with his innate ability to work his way into space that few others worldwide could find and his immense composure under the high ball in the backfield, made him a God-like figure within Highlanders country.
It’s similar to Richie McCaw’s reputation throughout the whole of New Zealand, and for that reason, he will be the most sorely-missed player from a now-departed contingent which formed the backbone of Aaron Mauger’s squad.
All those individuals established or solidified their credentials as test-level prospects during their time with the Highlanders, which makes their exits from the club all the more painful.
They aren’t the only ones who won’t be donning blue, gold and maroon jerseys in 2020, though.
Franchise stalwarts Tom Franklin and Richard Buckman made try-scoring appearances for the Kobelco Steelers in the opening weekend of the Top League on Sunday, which is where they’ll stay this year while the Highlanders duke it out for a place in Super Rugby’s top eight.
It’s in Japan where they’ll face off against new Suntory Sungoliath wing Tevita Li and Highlanders cult hero Marty Banks, who is Squire’s teammate at the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, over the coming weeks.
Elsewhere, the Highlanders’ 2016 player of the year, Matt Faddes, has signed with Irish PRO14 outfit Ulster, and he’ll likely face off against long-time provincial and Super Rugby teammate Aki Seiuli, who now plies his trade for the Glasgow Warriors.
That collective loss of star power from playing figures who acted as key components in the Highlanders dressing room is staggering, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that they have been the hardest hit by the quadrennial post-World Cup exodus in New Zealand.
What’s even scarier is that the decimation of those who formed the heartbeat of the Highlanders squad leaves the one-time Super Rugby champions with just five players remaining from their title-winning campaign five years ago.
By being part of the greatest Highlanders side in history, Aaron Smith, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown and newly-instated skipper James Lentjes will all hold vital leadership roles in a young squad that severely lacks experience in comparison to the team of yesteryear.
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That must be a confronting thought for those five players considering that the class of 2019 were incredibly lucky to secure a sixth consecutive play-offs berth, despite the headline names that were present in that side who have since headed abroad.
With just six wins from 16 outings, the Highlanders somehow spluttered their way into last year’s Super Rugby quarter-finals, where they were banished by the eventual champion Crusaders in a 38-14 defeat in Christchurch.
If last season’s side – one that wasn’t as stacked as those of 2015, 2016 and 2017, but was still a lot more match-hardened at this level than this year’s outfit – could barely manage an eighth-place finish, then how can the Highlanders expect to prolong their play-offs run in 2020?
That’s a fair question to ask, but the return of the club’s former first-five, assistant and head coach Tony Brown may go some way to answering it.
The 44-year-old, whose birthday falls on the same day as the Highlanders’ first pre-season clash against the Waratahs in Sydney this Friday, is back in Dunedin after a highly-successful stint in Japan under the guidance of Jamie Joseph.
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Brown, who made 91 appearances for the Highlanders across two playing stints between 1996 and 2011, followed his long-time coaching partner to Asia three years ago after having helped guide his former franchise to their maiden title in 2015 as Joseph’s assistant.
He had already made a name for himself in New Zealand as an astute backline and attack coach through his work with Otago and the Highlanders.
With Brown in the backroom staff between 2014 and 2017, the likes of Naholo, Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Lima Sopoaga and Patrick Osborne rose to national prominence thanks to the sharp, yet often unconventional, attacking blueprint that their coach had embedded on his side.
Following his shift to Japan, Brown’s – along with Joseph’s – reputation skyrocketed on a global scale.
Worldwide audiences were captivated by the Brave Blossoms’ scintillating, all-out style of play which paved the way to historic victories over Ireland and Scotland and a first-ever quarter-final appearance at last year’s World Cup in their own backyard.
It’s something of a miracle, then, that the Highlanders have managed to lure Brown back to Forsyth Barr Stadium on a three-year deal given the demand both he and Joseph attracted from the All Blacks and Japan in the wake of the Brave Blossoms’ enthralling displays.
Although he will still work alongside Joseph with the Japanese national side during the Super Rugby off-season, Brown will act as Mauger’s assistant while in Dunedin, and that alone could go a long way to helping the Highlanders offset their drastic loss of personnel.
Under the tutelage of such a world-class coach, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see highly-promising youngsters Josh McKay, Jona Nareki and Tima Fainga’anuku – who replaces the injured Connor Garden-Bachop – flourish in a revamped group of outside backs.
With the amount of potential they possess, those three will be considered leading contenders to replace Ben Smith, Naholo and Li on the wings and at fullback.
However, the retention of Tevita Nabura, who hasn’t featured for the Highlanders since being sent off for a flying kick into the face of Cam Clark in May 2018, indicates Mauger still sees something worth taking a punt on in the Fijian.
21-year-old sevens sensation Scott Gregory will join former Crusaders starlet Ngane Punivai, Otago captain Michael Collins and ex-Reds speedster Chris Kuridrani in challenging for starting roles before departing to chase his Olympic ambitions in March.
Most will anticipate on Tei Walden and Rob Thompson reassuming their posts in the midfield, but don’t rule out blockbusting local product Sio Tomkinson from usurping Walden in the No. 12 jersey.
With Thomas Umaga-Jensen ruled out until April with a shoulder injury, Southland star Ray Nu’u could also get a look in as his injury replacement.
While his fairytale rise in 2019 was capped off with a test debut, Ioane will still have to fight off Mitch Hunt and Bryn Gatland for the No. 10 jersey, as both players shifted south from the Crusaders and Blues in search of more game time.
Meanwhile, it will be intriguing to see what Brown can extract out of the prodigiously talented Folau Fakatava over the coming years.
The Tongan-born Hastings Boys’ High School old boy has only just turned 20 and looms as Smith’s successor at both Super Rugby and international level.
22-year-old Hawke’s Bay native Marino Mikaele-Tu’u might have something to say about that, though, as he awaits extensive game time following his Highlanders debut two years ago.
As the squad’s new skipper, Lentjes should have an iron fist on the openside flanker position, and the same can be said of All Blacks loose forward Shannon Frizell regarding the No. 6 spot.
Should injury strike, Otago tearaway Slade McDowall, who has been training with the Highlanders throughout pre-season, could earn a deserved Super Rugby debut after missing out on a full contract despite impressing at domestic level.
Both are large men and showed glimpses of what they’re capable of in 2019, but their places in the second row could come under threat from exciting Southlander Manaaki Selby-Rickit once his four-match suspension following his assault conviction expires.
27-year-old Jack Whetton has experience on his side, but was under-utilised in his debut campaign with the Highlanders last year.
As was the case last season, Lienert-Brown will have his work cut out for him in trying to dispatch Johnstone from the starting loosehead role, while Iosefa-Scott must contend with the incumbent Siate Tokolahi at tighthead.
Lodged between them will be All Blacks hooker Liam Coltman, who will almost certainly share match day duties with veteran Ash Dixon, as has been the case over the past few seasons.
Keep an eye out for Southland prodigy Ethan de Groot and former Chiefs prop Jeff Thwaites, both of whom are new faces in the front row.
All in all, this Highlanders squad is a side that exudes excitement and untapped potential, but perhaps without the required experience to genuinely challenge for a title this year.
That being said, there are several teams throughout the competition who have fallen victim to the riches of the Premiership, Top 14, PRO14 and Top League, leaving them similarly bereft of their top-dollar players.
Still, it’s clear that the Highlanders have probably been dealt the harshest hand in New Zealand by offshore clubs, but with the presence of Tony Brown in their ranks, the development of their next generation of stars should ensue with greater effect.
Whether that entails a seventh straight play-offs appearance remains to be seen, but Highlanders fans can rest assured that with the youthful exuberance in the playing group and unrivalled quality in the coaching ranks, the Dunedin club is in good stead in the dawn of the post-Ben Smith era.
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