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2023 Super Rugby Preview - Highlanders

Updated: Feb 1

2023 will shape up as a highly intriguing season for the men from the deep south, as they've undergone huge cosmetic surgical procedures in regard to the make-up of the squad. With a 2022 season that saw 11 outside backs get involved in the Highlanders, new Head Coach, Clarke Dermody, has wasted no time in creating a new squad with far more certainty, as to who sits where in the team.

Although some experience has been lost from the team, Dermody, a former All Black, has turned to the next generation for leadership; 28-year-old Billy Harmon has taken the captain's armband. The optimist in me can forsee 2023 being used as a platform, to propel the Highlanders toward a Super Rugby victory within a few years.

Let's have a look into the squad and analyse the biggest talking points, for the Highlanders' 2023 season.

New Signings for the Highlanders:

Leni Apisai

Age: 26 years old

Position: Hooker

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Hurricanes

The 26-year-old has landed a deal with his fourth Super Rugby club, having also represented the Blues and Sunwolves. As a two-time Māori All Black and former NZ U20 captain, Apisai isn't a bad pickup either. At 1.8m tall, look for his low centre of gravity to be utilised as a jackling threat around the pitch.

Fabian Holland

Age: 20 years old

Position: Lock

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Otago

Born in the Netherlands, Holland is eligible for the All Blacks due to age-grade representation. His short-term deal from 2022 has now been extended into a full-time deal to 2025 and this will bode well for the All Blacks' locking stocks down the line. Standing at 2.04m and 118kg, the young man will certainly get some decent game time.

Will Tucker

Age: 24 years old

Position: Lock

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Rugby United New York (USA)

The youngest of three brothers in professional rugby, Tucker's return to New Zealand from New York saw him complete 45/52 tackles (87%) for Otago in the NPC. At 2.02m, Tucker has more lineout height than his brother James (Blues) and brother Brad (Seattle), so will no doubt be given opportunities there; while his 111kg frame will certainly be of use in the carry.

Nikora Broughton

Age: 21 years old

Position: Number 8

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Bay of Plenty

Born in Patea to 59-time Wellington midfielder Norm Broughton, there's pedigree here. Broughton was a real standout for the Barbarians U20 side for 2022, having since made the 8 jersey his own at Bay of Plenty. While not as physically intimidating as other loosies, technique trumping size is Broughton's forté. A very promising player.

James Arscott

Age: 22 years old

Position: Halfback

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Otago

Having been in the Highlanders' wider training squad for two years, Arscott beat Nathan Hastie and Noah Hotham to Kayne Hammington's vacant spot at 9. Announced as a 2023 signing during the 2022 season, his bullet pass is reliable, as are his box-kicks. Game time will be easier for Arscott to access too, with Folau Fakatava injured.

Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi

Age: 27 years old

Position: Halfback

Test Caps: 3 tests

Previous Club: Crusaders

Injury to Brad Weber saw Tahuriorangi become a regular starter during his first season for the Chiefs in 2018; he also got capped three times that year. Game time at Super Rugby level has been difficult for Tahuriorangi to find ever since, his 2022 season with the Crusaders proved a false start with just 6 games. The Highlanders will be his fourth Super Rugby team.

Freddie Burns*

Age: 32 years old

Position: First-Five

Test Caps: 5 tests

Previous Club: Leicester Tigers

Burns had not been signed for the team on the original article's date of publishing, but has won several trophies in the English Premiership, including the recent 2022 title with Leicester; having previously represented his home city Bath, as well as Gloucester. While his brother plays for Ireland, Burns was a tourist for England's 2014 series in New Zealand. Expect Burns to get a lot of game time; Dermody clearly wants experience.

Cam Millar

Age: 20 years old

Position: First-Five

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Otago

Despite the presence of one-test All Black Josh Ioane in the team, Millar grasped the 10 jersey for Otago and never looked back in 2022. With 241 metres off just 37 carries, as well as an 80% goal-kicking rate, his promise is evident. Many of the Otago faithful believe Millar to be a future All Black and with just 13 games of professional rugby under his belt, future improvements are certain.

Martin Bogado

Age: 24 years old

Position: Winger/Fullback

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Aviron Bayonnais (France)

Although Bogado has only been recorded as having 12 games of professional rugby under his belt, he was in Michael Chieka's squad for Los Pumas' 2022 end-of-year tour. With 8 tries from 9 games for the Jaguares XV in Super Liga Americana de Rugby, he is hard to stop. Dermody's approach has essentially been identifying talent, to get Bogado his Pumas debut.

Jonah Lowe

Age: 26 years old

Position: Winger/Centre

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Chiefs

Jonah Lowe (centre) began his Super Rugby career with the Hurricanes. Photo: Max Sharp.

Despite easy access to a starting jersey over at the Chiefs, Lowe has shifted south in a deal until 2025, to join his third Super Rugby team. Out of Hawke's Bay's 2022 team, five had been Highlanders, with Lowe now the sixth of the Hawke's Bay Highlanders. With genuine pace and the ability to cover centre, the team won't be short of finishing power with Lowe.

Three Key Losses for the Highlanders:

Liam Coltman

Age: 32 years old

Position: Hooker

Test Caps: 8 tests

Destination: Lyon OU (France)

Coltman joined his high school teammate Beauden Barrett at test level and will be best remembered as a star of the 2019 World Cup Bronze Final who played a massive 138 matches for the Highlanders. With strong lineout throwing, big hits and great turnover technique, the veteran will be very much missed in 2023.

Bryn Evans

Age: 38 years old

Position: Lock

Test Caps: 2 tests

Destination: retired

Making his NPC debut for Hawke's Bay, aged 18 in 2003, back when the competition was amateur, who would have thought back then that Evans would keep going until 2022? Evans was in the English Premiership Team of the Decade for the 2010's and played 95 games for Hawke's Bay in a total of 365 matches of professional rugby. What's even crazier, is that the 1.96m and 113kg lock was still good enough to earn a possible third test cap in 2021. One of the greatest All Black bolters ever.

Denny Solomona

Age: 29 years old

Position: Winger

Test Caps: 5 tests

Destination: North Harbour

Three years of residency in England for his Rugby League career, then saw Solomona convert codes to play with the Sale Sharks. Despite playing league for Samoa, the Kiwi-born Solomona played five tests for England. While he is getting older, it was surprising the Highlanders didn't offer Solomona a full contract after his short-term deal with the team in 2022 during his return to New Zealand.

A Possible First-Choice XV for the Highlanders:

  1. Ethan de Groot

  2. Andrew Makalio

  3. Jermaine Ainsley

  4. Josh Dickson

  5. Max Hicks

  6. Shannon Frizell

  7. Billy Harmon (c)

  8. Marino Mikaele-Tu'u

  9. Aaron Smith

  10. Freddie Burns*

  11. Martin Bogado

  12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen

  13. Fetuli Paea

  14. Connor Garden-Bachop

  15. Sam Gilbert

Full Highlanders Squad for 2023:

*denotes newly-signed player.

Italics denote a test-capped player.

+ denotes a player ruled out for the season due to injury.

Hookers: Leni Apisai*, Andrew Makalio, Rhys Marshall

Props: Jermaine Ainsley, Ethan de Groot, Luca Inch, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma'u, Jeff Thwaites

Locks: Josh Dickson, Max Hicks, Fabian Holland*, Pari Pari Parkinson, Will Tucker*

Loose Forwards: Nikora Broughton*, Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon, James Lentjes, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Hugh Renton, Sean Withy

Halfbacks: James Arscott*, Folau Fakatava+, Aaron Smith, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi*

First-Fives: Marty Banks, Freddie Burns*, Mitch Hunt, Cam Millar

Midfielders: Scott Gregory, Fetuli Paea, Josh Timu, Thomas Umaga-Jensen

Outside Backs: Martín Bogado*, Mosese Dawai, Connor Garden-Bachop, Sam Gilbert, Vilimoni Koroi, Jonah Lowe*, Jona Nareki

Potential MVP: Ethan de Groot

Potential Top Points Scorer: Cam Millar

Potential Top Try-Scorer: Connor Garden-Bachop

Likely Finishing Place in 2022:

Quarter-Finals. This Highlanders side remains experienced but very very fresh, almost reminiscent of the baby-faced Crusaders side who won the competition in 2017. A lot of the squad has a rather nice ring to it and comparisons simply need to be made. Both sides had Andrew Makalio at hooker, new faces at lock, two new halfbacks, a young first-five (Cam Millar and Richie Mo'unga) running the cutter, a genuine power winger (Martín Bogado and Seta Tamanivalu) born overseas, a highly entertaining impact loose forward (Hugh Renton and Peter Samu) to dominate off the bench and of course, a former All Black in as the new coach.

For an idea of what the 2023 Highlanders could attack like, look back on 2021, when Clarke Dermody was Acting Head Coach during Tony Brown's absence.

While the Blues' several years of shared playing experience will be the big deal in 2023, this new-look Highlanders team definitely feels like the start of a dynasty. A second Super Rugby title won't be turning up at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2023, but it sure will be within the next few years.

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