Highlanders to bring same staunch attitude
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2018 - TEAM BY TEAM: In the ninth instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the Highlanders. It will be followed by the last of the New Zealand teams and then the Australian conference.
We know the Highlanders have an astute, new-look coaching team led by former Leicester Tigers coach and former All Blacks utility back Aaron Mauger.
We know they have nine past or present All Blacks in their ranks. And we know they will be tight, determined, and often hellishly difficult to put away. We just do not know where they will finish up, but they will hope to place higher than seventh (as in 2017) to avoid long-distance hauls in late July.
The draw is in their favour, with little early travel, as is the fact that Ben Smith will almost be jumping out of his skin to play after his sabbatical. Come to think of it, Smith always jumps out of his skin when he wears the Highlanders jersey. His co-captain will be the admirable Maori All Blacks hooker Ash Dixon, who has leapfrogged Liam Coltman in the rankings.
The tight five have few big names, but will be industrious, and the Steelers' Kalolo Tuiloma is an interesting addition to Super Rugby.
Two years ago he was 181kg!
Lock Alex Ainley is out to prove that 36-year-olds should not be put out to pasture. The seven loose forwards include four All Blacks in new international Dillon Hunt, Elliot Dixon, just over a long-term bicep concern, the bruising Liam Squire and the accurate Luke Whitelock.
They will win enough ball for Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga, before he links with Wasps, to carry out the game plan and provide prime attacking opportunities for men such as Matt Faddes, and potent finishers Waisake Naholo and Tevita Li. The versatility and skill of rookie Canterbury and NZ Under 20 outside back Josh McKay will be highly valued.
The big loss will be centre Malakai Fekitoa, whose driving defence was punctuated by moments of attacking brilliance in his four successful years with the franchise. Richard Buckman, the Barracuda, could fill the void, and his versatility and uncanny ability to pop up at the right time with or without the ball could be telling.
The coaching staff are all South Islanders: Mauger, Glenn Delaney, Cory Brown, Mark Hammett and Clarke Dermody. That won't be a bad thing.
In summation, the Highlanders again do not possess as much X-factor as some of the other New Zealand squads, but the groundwork laid by Jamie Joseph, which culminated in the 2015 title, is still infused in this group. Under-rate them at your peril.
One to watch
Just 20, Thomas Umaga-Jensen is coming off a breakout NPC season with the Wellington Lions.
He scored five tries and beat 31 defenders in reproducing some of the form that made him a schoolboy star with Scots College from 2014-15. Umaga-Jensen, the nephew of Tana Umaga, also looked noticeably trimmer after a difficult 2016. He could well challenge for a starting berth in the Highlanders' midfield, especially after the exit of Fekitoa.
Umaga-Jensen played for the 2015 NZ Schools and would have made the 2014 side if his mother had not decided to pull he and his twin Peter out of the reckoning, saying they needed to knuckle down to exams. Fair call, that.
New Zealand Conference Placing: Third
Player of the Year: Lima Sopoaga
Rookie of the Year: Thomas Umaga-Jensen
Best Signing: Dillon Hunt
Breakout Player: Tevita Li
Super Rugby Placing: Mid-table
In: Tyrel Lomax (Tasman), Kalolo Tuiloma (Counties Manukau), Paripari Parkinson (Tasman), Dillon Hunt (Otago), Shannon Frizell (Tasman), Josh Ioane (Otago), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), Tevita Nabura (Counties Manukau), Josh McKay (Canterbury)
Out: Siua Halanukonuka (Glasgow, Scotland), Craig Millar (Sunwolves), Joe Wheeler (Panasonic, Japan), Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Shane Christie, Marty Banks (Treviso, Italy), Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon, France), Patrick Osborne (Panasonic, Japan), Jason Emery
Forwards: Liam Coltman, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Ash Dixon (co-captain), Guy Millar, Aki Seiuli, Tyrel Lomax, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi, Kalolo Tuiloma, Paripari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Jackson Hemopo, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Elliot Dixon, James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt, Dan Pryor, Shannon Frizell, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock
Backs: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Josh Renton, Josh Ioane, Fletcher Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Teihorangi Walden, Rob Thompson, Matt Faddes, Sio Tomkinson, Richard Buckman, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Tevita Nabura, Tevita Li, Waisake Naholo, Josh McKay, Ben Smith (co-captain)
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
* Don't miss the last of the New Zealand Conference teams, the Blues, and also the Australian conference in the coming weeks.