Updated: Jun 10, 2022
Written by Max Sharp.
The Highlanders' front-row was easily the best of any team's in the league. Prior to the season's kickoff, I stated it was a four-horse race between the Blues, Crusaders, Chiefs and Highlanders. How wrong I was about one of those teams.
Forsyth Barr Stadium's tenants easily had a squad with the ability to win their second Super Rugby title, with Tony Brown naming mouth-watering lineups week-in-week out. So what went wrong for the Highlanders, who went on to be eliminated in the Super Rugby Pacific Quarter-Finals? Let's investigate.
A very disappointing-looking table saw the top 7 teams all get over 8 wins from 14 games, leaving the eighth-placed Highlanders on just 4 wins from 14. The points differential was a saving grace for the team, they had just as many losing bonus points (5) on the table as the Western Force.
A points differential of 3, compared to the Force's -117, meant that in order to have a chance at the playoffs, the Highlanders had to either beat the Rebels or lose by less than 7 points in Round 15 of the season; we saw a loss of 30-31 after they conceded a try to the Rebels' Young Tonumaipea, a code-conversion who previously represented the Gold Coast Titans.
Four of the Highlanders' results were decided by less than 5 points, including their second loss to the Crusaders, 1-point loss to the Hurricanes at the death, loss to the Rebels, though they closed out a tight win over the Fijian Drua. Did Tony Brown take notice of the impact, of subbing off experienced players, or of game-day mentality? I'm not sure.
Notable Individual Performances
As mentioned earlier in this article, the Highlanders' first-choice props and all three of their hookers were brilliant during 2022. Special mentions also go to Billy Harmon and Marino Mikaele-Tu'u who had great returns from injury.
Ethan de Groot was somewhat of an unknown rookie at the beginning of 2021, having represented Southland, though he made the All Blacks after becoming a regular starter that year. de Groot has proven himself deserving of a starting spot this season though. The Australian-born 23-year-old doesn't have the best running stats thanks to his position, but did still manage 4 defenders beaten and a clean break this season, while he completed 82/88 tackles for a ratio of 93%. His presence over the ball was brilliant too, de Groot finished as one of the most prolific turnover winners of the season, with 9. The most turnovers for a New Zealander went to Ardie Savea, with 14 turnovers, for reference.
Jermaine Ainsley's rock-solid tackling was a great compliment to de Groot's jackling. Ainsley, a former 3-test Wallaby, only made 2 turnovers in 2022 but made 101/111 tackles, with a 91% ratio, ranking 49th for most tackles this season. Ainsley may be worth a look at for the All Blacks, due to Nepo Laulala's failure to match the heights of 2021. Ainsley is after all, a similar size to Laulala. The Highlanders' scrum percentage was just 91% this season - the impact of substituting Ainsley and de Groot would often have negative implications on the team.
Most would have come to this article for Folau Fakatava and fairly so. The halfback has been ruled eligible for the All Blacks and looks certain to be picked after outstanding form. Fakatava's addition to the pitch would often off-set a worse-off scrum in the second half. Fakatava beat Aaron Smith for metres run (275), defenders beaten (12), clean breaks (5), offloads (18) and tackle accuracy (42/53 and 79%), despite making more attempts than Smith. With true precision in all 441 of his passes this season, Fakatava's test debut is inevitable.
The Highlanders' 85% tackle rate, 96% ruck win rate, 91% scrum win rate and 91% lineout win rate, are not bad season statistics at all, most of the forward pack all worked excellently as a unit, spearheaded by 6 test-capped players, including the Evans brothers.
As fact is a far better way to argue with than feeling, we can learn a lot from a rugby player, or team, based on statistics, they can usually tell us either about where a team excels, or what potential tactics are. As I do insist though, stats don't always tell the story of a sports team. Compared to other Super Rugby teams who made the playoffs, these outstanding-looking stats actually look fairly ordinary. The Highlanders ranked a joint-2nd with 6 teams for rucks won, first for lineouts won, 5th for scrums won and 8th for tackle percentage.
Anyone who watched the team this season is well aware that the Highlanders' forwards did their best at giving the backs a platform to run off, the ruck win percentage and lineout win percentages are clear indicators. Every All Blacks test lost since 2019, has been lost up-front, as most rugby matches are, but in the case of the Highlanders, I would make a case to argue their losses have come from an inconsistent "numberless" backline tactic.
The team had 12 outside backs for 2022, as well as Fetuli Paea, Scott Gregory and Ngane Punivai who have the utility value of swapping between centre and wing. Solomon Alaimalo (health), Jona Nareki and Vereniki Tikoisolomone (injuries) did not play, having initially been signed for the season; 4 outside backs were added to the team.
Inconsistent selection in regards to what jersey which back would wear, is the likely reason for the Highlanders' low tackle percentage compared to other teams who made the playoffs.
Victories over Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua were very important for the Highlanders; the monkey was at last shaken off their back with a first win, but after losing in the "Super Round", more victories were desperately needed. After firing their pre-match haka towards the Drua, the Highlanders were able to demonstrate real mental toughness and fight their way back to victory. This same fortitude was later displayed in their first-half performance in the quarter-finals; though Andrew Makalio's red card allowed the Blues back into the game.
A massive victory over the Western Force and some hard-nosed carrying against the Reds once again showed, that these players are far better than what haters would describe due to the team's win rate. We saw a hard-earned win ground out against the Reds, while the 51-point margin against the Force was a mouth-watering classic with some champagne rugby under the roof.
It was also a pleasure to see Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea finally return from injury. Though Paea's first game of the season was poor, they became rock solid staples of the side's backline by the end of the season, with Umaga-Jensen almost behaving as a fourth loose forward. Had Umaga-Jensen not had a leg injury against the Blues early in the season, perhaps this midfield combination would have stuck, rather than Tony Brown subjecting us to a pathetic "numberless backline" tactic where anyone can be anywhere for specific plays.
Ultimately, the problems faced by the team this year, were logistical faults, rather than player faults. These players deserve better in 2023.
As a former All Blacks' first-five, Tony Brown should have known that backlines need direction with on-field coaches steering the ship from jerseys in the team's spine. For order on the pitch, every player must have a direct role in each zone of the pitch, not chopping-and-changing over and over again.
The selection of just two specialist first-fives ahead of the season, while allowing Josh Ioane to leave for the Chiefs, was also disgusting. Liam Coombes-Fabling, who did not even have a contract ahead of the 2022 season, plays wing for Waikato, yet was asked to be the reserve 10 for the quarter-final.
Yes, the Highlanders had a very good squad for 2022. But this season, we had a classic example of an all-star lineup without any brains put in. These players deserved a far better win ratio than 4/14 matches and perhaps with a new coach incoming for 2023, these players will get the win rate and the trophy they deserve to win.
In 2023, the Highlanders need to retain the lot of their first-choice forwards, as well as Aaron Smith and Connor Garden-Bachop for their spine, while the likes of Tom Florence, Brett Cameron, Kianu Kereru-Symes, Josh Moorby, Luca Inch, Logan Henry, Siua Maile, Charlie Gamble and Abraham Pole, would all be well-worth signing on full contracts.
I'm confident the team will be far better in 2023.
End-of-Season Grading for Highlanders: F