Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Written by Max Sharp.
Max Sharp holds a Q+A with Highlanders loose forward, Hugh Renton, on what they did to improve in 2021.
In 2021, the Highlanders proved many doubters wrong, they improved throughout the season, displaying genuine fortitude and mental toughness, despite two off-field scandals. The Highlanders, thanks to excellent team culture, were able to work together as a unit.
Although on paper, they should have placed last in Super Rugby Aotearoa, they showcased a willingness to follow Tony Brown's coaching, as they attained solid performances over the Chiefs and Blues, plus dominance over the Crusaders in their three wins.
Then, without Brown, who was on international duty with Japan for the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman series, they tore Australian-based opponents to shreds with a powerful scrum, knowing when and when not to compete for the ball, silky hands and accurate kicks. The men from the deep south made their way to the Trans-Tasman final and although they lost, their resilience was again on display in a brave performance.
The Highlanders' 2021 season ended as their best since 2015, so, can Tony Brown, the 18-test former All Black, take the team to a second title as he did as Assistant Coach back then? It is indeed possible, especially with Aaron Smith, their most-capped-ever player, as the likely captain.
THREE KEY SIGNINGS FOR THE HIGHLANDERS:
The arrival of Saula Ma'u is going to be a frightening prospect for the Highlanders' opposition in 2022. Although he has been with Otago since 2019, he has only two NPC games to his name, as a result of injuries. The Tongan-born prop has huge potential though, when he did take the field for Otago in 2019, their scrum was rock-solid. Ma'u, who has finally returned from injury, will at long last make his Super Rugby debut in 2021. The Highlanders signed Ma'u to their academy after he finished high school at Auckland Grammar School and he has graduated to their full squad. He possesses mobility around the field, while he also stands at 1.93m tall and 140kg. He'll become very difficult for opponents to tackle, while he has a strong scrum technique. Ma'u is set to become what Ben Tameifuna would have, had Tameifuna fulfilled his potential.
Sean Withy is a fellow graduate of the Highlanders' academy, having played as their captain at Under-20's in 2021. Withy will turn 21 years old shortly before the season starts and has a large frame for an openside flanker, at 1.91m and 108kg. An excellent defender, there's no harm in the Highlanders making the most of the youngster early in his career, he appears to have lots of enthusiasm about his rugby, he likely grew up watching Richie McCaw, because if so, it shows in his turnover technique. Withy may not become a regular starter too soon, but don't be surprised to see him play a test later in his promising career.
The fact that the Highlanders only have two specialist first-fives in their squad comes across as frankly ridiculous, so luckily their fans have the return of Marty Banks to celebrate; this will offset this fact a lot for the men in the deep south. After four seasons in Japan, Banks is in for his third stint with the Highlanders, this club truly is his home. At 32 years old, his role as an experienced player will be a benefit to the backline, which mostly lacks in seniority. Banks, who debuted for Southland in 2021, will have no trouble kicking difficult game-winning goals in the last 10 minutes of a game. When it happens, his fan page The Legend of Marty Banks, will have plenty of content around it made by it's creator, Alex Malcolm.
THREE KEY LOSSES FOR THE HIGHLANDERS:
Ash Dixon's leadership is going to be missed in 2022. Although not the biggest player at only 1.82m and 102kg, the 2021 co-captain displayed his heart of a lion to fuel the squad in their mission to win Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. While Tony Brown has signed Andrew Makalio and Rhys Marshall, both experienced players, this will not change the fact that they have lost an irreplaceable spirit in the team. While a great leader, Dixon had some talent on the field as well, his lineout throwing is incredibly accurate, while his love for driving mauls became a fan favourite in both Hawke's Bay and the Highlanders. All the best for him in Japan.
Another player who is currently in Japan is Kazuki Himeno, a born-and-bred representative who signed with the Highlanders on a one-year deal in 2021. Himeno who is capable of playing in all three loose forward jerseys, found himself a home at number 8, providing some brutality in contact for the team.
Max Sharp meets Kazuki Himeno at a Highlanders vs Crusaders game, 2021.
His game became world-class while he played for the Highlanders, his turnover technique, carrying and tackling all to an impeccable standard. The 27-year-old also scored two tries for the Highlanders from 11 games, while he appeared to add some enjoyment and friendliness to the team culture, this will be the most important loss the Highlanders observe with his return to Toyota Verblitz.
Josh Ioane's signing with the Chiefs came to agreement after he asked the Highlanders for an early release from his contract. While I have seen comments from people calling him a "traitor" for leaving the Highlanders, I see Ioane's call as a brave move which I'm sure will turn out well for him, but not the Highlanders. Brown made it clear that he preferred Hunt at 10, keeping Ioane out of the jersey for much of 2021. Josh Ioane, at 26 years old, is clearly no longer interested in being shafted by coaches playing him out of position, he wants to play at 10 and get a re-call for the All Blacks; he deserves his place there. The Highlanders will only have themselves to blame if they lose the only two of their specialist first-fives to injury.
A POSSIBLE LINEUP FOR THE HIGHLANDERS IN 2022:
FULL HIGHLANDERS SQUAD FOR 2022:
* denotes a newly-signed player.
Italics denote a test-capped player.
+ denotes a player ruled out for the season due to injury.
Hookers: Liam Coltman, Andrew Makalio*, Rhys Marshall*
Props: Jermaine Ainsley, Ethan de Groot, Josh Hohneck, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma'u*, Jeff Thwaites
Locks: Sam Caird*, Josh Dickson, Bryn Evans, Pari Pari Parkinson+, Manaaki Selby-Rickit
Loose Forwards: Gareth Evans*, Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon, Max Hicks*, James Lentjes, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Hugh Renton, Sean Withy*
Halfbacks: Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith
First-Fives: Marty Banks*, Mitchell Hunt
Midfielders: Scott Gregory, Fetuli Paea, Ngane Punivai, Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen
Outside Backs: Solomon Alaimalo, Mosese Dawai*, Connor Garden-Bachop, Sam Gilbert, Vilimoni Koroi, Jona Nareki+, Vereniki Tikoisolomone*, Josh Timu
Players on Short-Term Deals: Luca Inch, Sam Fischli, Christian Lio-Willie, James Arscott, Nathan Hastie
Potential MVP: Aaron Smith
Potential Top Points Scorer: Mitchell Hunt
Potential Top Try-Scorer: Liam Coltman
LIKELY FINISHING PLACE IN 2022:
4th place. The Super Rugby Pacific competition is a four-horse race, between the Highlanders, Blues, Chiefs and Crusaders. The Highlanders look set to dominate the Fijian Drua and their Australian counterparts, while they will easily be able to beat other New Zealand-based teams if they can execute Brown's game plan properly. As expressed previously in the article though, the lack of a specialist third-choice 10 could prove a fatal flaw, if Banks and Hunt are both injured. The Highlanders have always been blessed with depth in their loose forwards, but while this is the case, only two backs have test caps as of the time this article is being written. If you have $100, don't be shy on betting for the Highlanders to be semi-finalists.