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Can the Highlanders Be Fixed? (Opinion)

Season after season since Jamie Joseph left to become the Head Coach of Japan, the Highlanders have had the talent to win more Super Rugby titles, but not the performances to back this talent up. Clarke Dermody, who began his tenure as Highlanders Head Coach this year, is now facing some pressure from a vocal minority, after their losses to the Waratahs and the Force.

In 2017, 18 and 19, the team had quarter-final exits, they were fourth in Super Rugby Aotearoa for both 2020 and 21; though they were beaten finalists for 2021's Trans-Tasman season. This season, they're in 8th place and looking destined for a repeat of their 2022 quarter-final exit that came after a raft of injuries and then-coach Tony Brown's failed attempt at the tactic of a numberless backline.

Not all hope is lost however. Dermody can fix the Highlanders and their 2023 season is still salvageable. While an overload of issues have arisen in discussions about this team, they are fixable.

The Highlanders have had rotten luck against fellow New Zealand-based teams, going winless against their countrymen since 2021.

Lack of Test Experience:

Thus far in the 2020's, Ethan de Groot and Folau Fakatava have been the only All Blacks to make their test debuts while playing for the Highlanders. Of the most recent 107 All Black debutants, just 13 of these players, were signed to the Highlanders at the time of their test debut as well; despite many more being deserving.

In the 2023 Highlanders squad, 7 players have test caps to their name; though Jermaine Ainsley, Fetuli Paea and Freddie Burns' test caps have been earned for other nations. As for those knocking on the door, the captain, Billy Harmon, was called into the All Blacks' 2022 end-of-year tour, though he did not play, while names such as Jermaine Ainsley, Nikora Broughton, Hugh Renton, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Sean Withy, Cam Millar, Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Jona Nareki come up in conversations about "robbed of an All Black cap", "future All Blacks" and there's even a small cult of followers who have genuinely deluded themselves into believing that Umaga-Jensen should start over David Havili as the All Blacks' first-choice 12. Josh Dickson was also called into the All Blacks during 2022, though he was released after Brodie Retallick's return from injury.

The Highlanders' first-choice starting XV for 2023 however, appears to look something like this, based on what's happened this season:

  1. Ethan de Groot

  2. Andrew Makalio

  3. Jermaine Ainsley

  4. Josh Dickson

  5. Pari Pari Parkinson

  6. Shannon Frizell

  7. Billy Harmon

  8. Hugh Renton

  9. Aaron Smith

  10. Mitch Hunt

  11. Scott Gregory

  12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen

  13. Josh Timu (injured)

  14. Jonah Lowe

  15. Connor Garden-Bachop

7 of these 15 players, don't usually turn up in the conversations regarding the upper echelons of the team's talent however. It's apparent that the team isn't sure of Sam Gilbert's true position either, which is a real shame, given his immense talents.

Folau Fakatava (halfback) made his much-anticipated test debut for the All Blacks, against Ireland, in 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.

The Tough Calls (Forwards):

As the Super Rugby organisers, SANZAAR, don't give teams the option of mid-season trades, or a pre-season draft, as many other competitions from the United States and Europe have, organising a better starting lineup is harder at this stage of the year; given Dermody will need to either release players from contracts ahead of 2024 or make new high-profile signings to fully transform this team into multi-season world-beaters.

However, some brave calls must be made to fix this team. de Groot, Ainsley, Harmon, Renton, Mikaele-Tu'u and Withy are playing their hearts out week-in-week-out, while the hookers are by no means bad players; going along with the loose forwards depth.

We'll start at lock, where Makalio hasn't received the backup for the lineout, when Dickson has been unavailable. Fabian Holland is just 20 years old, so doesn't need to be burdened with calling the lineout. Josh Bekhuis is past it at 37 years old, while Will Tucker simply hasn't stepped up to Super Rugby. Having run just 88 metres off 25 carries in 302 minutes for the season, Tucker lacks the work ethic of his older brother James Tucker (Blues), while he doesn't make a big difference at the breakdown. Pari Pari Parkinson is no longer the promising player he once was either, his body and discipline have been wrecked by injury. Keeping him on the bench as a big body to help with scrums is a much better option; this route needs to be persisted with, to assist with his hopes of returning to form. Although Max Hicks has been signed as a loose forward, his best performances usually come from lock. Time for the coaches to show faith and give the 23-year-old a starting spot whenever Dickson isn't available.

In the loose forwards, perhaps the biggest call needs to be made. Though Marino Mikaele-Tu'u has been injured, he has only missed a single tackle, while most know the All Blacks XV pick for his hard carrying. The team lacks grunt with ball-in-hand outside of Renton when the starting front-rowers were off, so unfortunately, Shannon Frizell, must be dropped.

Despite status as a 25-test All Black, Frizell just hasn't stepped up this season. Though World Cups are won on experience, 6, 7 and the wings; are positions that can still be tinkered with. The players in these four jerseys don't have any say in major tactical decisions, hence why form can matter very much when coaches select these positions for test rugby. As things stand right down, Frizell is being beaten by the Chiefs' Samipeni Finau for metres run, clean breaks, tackles made and also, tackle accuracy. Not only is Frizell's place in the All Blacks now a question, but the Highlanders seriously need some harder carriers in their starting lineup. Frizell simply hasn't been in form and that needs to be taken into more account than his reputation due to the team's struggles.

In an ideal world, Ayden Johnstone, Leni Apisai and Sean Withy are given as much time off the bench as possible too, in order to give the Highlanders more of an anchorage in the breakdown and slow opposition ball. Saula Ma'u can't be the only source of late turnovers in a match.

The Tough Calls (Backs):

Aaron Smith has not been relied on as heavily when he has indeed played this season; he's only ranked 14th for most passes this season, having only played 5 games due to both the need to save energy for the Rugby World Cup, while the death of his father will sadly now remain at the forefront of his memory regarding 2023. However, if the recent match against the Waratahs is anything to go off, Dermody appears to feel the need to use Smith as much as possible for the rest of the season - Folau Fakatava subsequently played just 9 minutes. Smith has signed for Toyota Verblitz in Japan for 2024, so he can't be relied on forever. Fakatava needs to be trusted with more minutes this season.

While it's a nice headache to have two All Blacks halfbacks, the headache at 10 is completely different. Marty Banks has yet to take the field all season, while up-and-coming Cam Millar is injured. Finding a position for Sam Gilbert is a must-do, but it would be best to put him back at 15. This then leaves a straight shootout between Mitch Hunt (27) and Freddie Burns (32).

Having been undervalued by Tony Brown, former one-test All Black, Josh Ioane, left the Highlanders at the end of 2021. Ioane is well down the Chiefs' pecking order. Photo: Max Sharp.

I've made it clear that I didn't rate Burns' test-level performances with England, but at least he is a proven winner at club level, having won a title with Gloucester and two titles with Leicester; he kicked the 2021-22 Premiership-winning drop goal after replacing the injured George Ford. Hunt has himself made previous admissions that consistency has been a problem in his career and right now, he appears to be in a period of overthinking; or perhaps self-doubt, that has made a clear impact on his form. Hunt hasn't been the same player since his return from concussion. Several basic errors in his game, that trolls have cruelly mocked, is showing us symptoms of a bloke that lacks the confidence to make a difference at this level. Hunt needs to be given a mental health break and let Burns into the drivers' seat, for the sake of the team.

Having Thomas Umaga-Jensen at 12 has also made running the cutter much harder for Hunt. While Umaga-Jensen is a pure talent with ball-in-hand; ranking 29th for metres run, 26th for carries, 28th for defenders beaten, 50th for clean breaks and 27th for offloads - the rest of his game has been severely exposed by the lack of a second playmaker on the pitch. Umaga-Jensen's tackle rate for the season is just 74%, while most supporters will be well aware of his lack of a kicking game. His carrying is much-needed due to the lack of work ethic from some aforementioned forwards, but he needs to either desperately add to his game, or be played outside a second distributor to balance the backline.

Sam Gilbert at 12 has been a recent move from the coaches, but he doesn't have the instincts to use his kicking game from this position. Is Scott Gregory back at 12 the way to go, with Fetuli Paea back on the wing? This may create a backline with some defensive lapses, but that will be a trade-in for the Highlanders scoring more points themselves, which is what they need.

Should the forwards get things right, this issue won't be as obvious, but it will still be present.

The Match-Day Tactics:

As SANZAAR would wipe my YouTube channel (also my only current source of income) off the face of the earth if I was to use Super Rugby footage, I won't be able to break these down in the same way I would a test match.

Long story short, the breakdown isn't something that Harmon and his props can attend to alone. As of 23rd April, the Highlanders had tied with the Chiefs for fewest turnovers conceded amongst NZ teams (44) - pointing to the tactical use of de Groot and Ainsley's supreme fitness to nullify the number of possession changes. The Highlanders however, have a tactic of locks floating around the breakdown as seagulls to guard the fringes, rather than counterruck and slow the opposition ball.

A recent away trip to Sydney saw the Highlanders lose to the Waratahs by one point.

As I'm not an insider to the Highlanders' camp I can't confirm if this is deliberate or not, but this tendency appears to disrupt the flow of the Highlanders setting their defensive line. The use of flankers, rather than locks as ruck clearance options on defence, also gives opposing players smaller targets when they wish to re-target a previous ruck; such a method of attack lead to two tries for the Waratahs on Friday night. This "seagulling lock" tactic; has also lead to all of their locking options (Hicks and Frizell included) managing a combined total of just 8 turnovers this season. Former Highlander, Christian Lio-Willie, managed half that total in his Round 1 Crusaders debut. While the team knows how to avoid conceding turnovers, they need to win more of them.

Another defensive tendency that's been noticeable, is the narrow defensive positioning of wingers. This forces a single-man back field cover which is likely to blame for Sam Gilbert's season tackle rate of 69% as he needs to sort out so much space on his own. Narrow positions also allowed for several scorching plays on the outside; allowing the Blues to defeat the Highlanders by 60-20 in Round 1.

The Final Verdict:

All teams in Super Rugby have clear problems on defence, not just the Highlanders. SANZAAR has artificially sped Super Rugby up with new laws; in an attempt to make up for inherent flaws in many players' skillsets - the attitudes in schoolboy rugby that I had problems with, as a former player, have crept up to a professional level due to New Zealand's problems with a homogenous coaching style that puts the big highlight reel plays above the fundamental basics of the game.

All of the defensive problems outlined in the Highlanders aren't unique to themselves; they simply have to improve their methods of exploiting the clear defensive faults in their opposition. With the talent they have in their current squad, said attacking issues are absolutely fixable, handling errors and teamwork pending.

Clarke Dermody's men are far from the deep hole that Tana Umaga through investment and Leon MacDonald through recruitment, pulled the 2010's Blues team out of. Dermody is a first-year Head Coach who will no doubt be livid at some performances his team has had. His side can absolutely make the quarter-finals this season, they aren't done for at all.

While Forsyth Barr Stadium has been empty recently, some firing attack structures will be certain to bring the fans back in. Photo: Sam Audas.

Blokes like Jermaine Ainsley, should be in the All Blacks. Injuries have put guys like Mikaele-Tu'u and Renton in a similar boat. Should a few tinkering moves take place in team selection and team tactics, then the Highlanders can absolutely fix the situation they're in right now. Sir John Kirwan's suggestions of New Zealand not having enough room for a fifth Super Rugby team, were rubbish. After Aaron Mauger and Tony Brown-coached failures, the Clarke Dermody era, could become far more successful, if he is willing to make the suggested changes, or unleash some fresh ideas that no other can think of.

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