There will be high hopes that new coach Jamie Joseph will be able to work some magic in his first year at the helm of the Highlanders. However it will be a big ask for the Southerner’s to graduate out of their Conference and qualify for the final six of the Investec Super rugby play-offs in 2011.
The Highlander’s have finished the lowest of all the New Zealand franchises for the last six seasons. However with the Highlanders not making the top four since 2002, they have been competitive in recent seasons, with close losses being a recent frustration to their loyal fan base. On paper the southern franchises results have not looked bad. Last year their highlights included travelling to the Republic and beating the Cheetahs as well as putting 35 points past the Champion Bulls at Loftus. They then returned home to beat eventual Semi Finalist’s the Waratahs. These performances were coupled with close losses to the Hurricanes, and Reds (by two points), Blues (four points), and Chiefs (six points), these types of results have been common place in recent seasons with 2009 providing further evidence with seven of their nine losses being by less than eight points. However, even with all this in mind Joseph and his team will be looking to turn around the franchises fortunes and quickly.
Joseph’s first mission was to compile a squad. The final product is a Joseph squad that looks radically different from the one last year. This is due to the introduction of 15 new faces arguably the biggest overhaul of any super side this season.
The new faces comprise an interesting collection of exciting youngsters that are complemented by some genuine experience. With the final verdict from commentators being that the 2011 Highlanders look well balanced and should prove to be tough opposition to plan against with so much unknown of their potential combinations.
This year the Highlander’s will be lead by new skipper Jamie Mackintosh who is joined by other experienced Super players in the form of Jason Rutledge, Mo Schwagler, Adam Thompson, Alando Soakai, Chris King, Tom Donnelly, Josh Bekhuis, Jimmy Cowan, Matt Saunders, Ben Smith and Kenny Lynn.
The youngsters making the squad include Robbie Robinson, Kurt Baker, Lima Sopoanga, Sean Treeby, Talusa Veainu, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, John Hardie and Brayden Mitchell who are all bound to get opportunities to stake their claims as professional rugby players at the highest level.
There has also been three key signings that should provide some additional steel up front as well as providing an x-factor that may just be the difference in turning close losses into narrow wins. The arrival of Manawatu captain Nick Crosswell will bolster what is already a strong loose forward mix and Taranaki’s Jarrod Hoeta is a tough uncompromising lock, loose forward who impressed during the NZ Maori campaign early in the year. The marquee signing however is star fly half and goal kicker Colin Slade from the Crusaders who is bound to provide some much needed class to the Highlanders back division. Slade is widely thought of as Daniel Carter’s back up for this year’s RWC and will be given every opportunity to push his case throughout the Super season.
The Highlanders may be some way of the halcyon days of the late 1990’s when the franchise featured in four semi finals including a loss in the final. Then that playing roster boasted the likes of All Blacks Josh Kronfeld, Taine Randall, Isitolo Maka, Byron Kelleher, Tony Brown, Jeff Wilson, Pita Alatini and Samoan hit man Brian Lima.
While the 2011 squad may not boast the double figure contingent of capped All Blacks that the other four New Zealand teams do, it is still a capable squad.
Seven players have played at test level (including Samoan Mahonri Schwagler) that will ensure that the Highlanders have a strong spine, especially up front – with Mackintosh, Tom Donnelly and Adam Thomson the key men, back up will be provided from Rutledge, Crosswell, Hoeta and Otago captain Soakai which will make the Highlanders as good as any pack (barring the Crusaders) in the competition. Behind the scrum the All Black combination of Cowan and Slade will be the key to setting the Highlanders on their way in the competition.
The squad is also ably supported by the strongest wider training group of any of the New Zealand teams, featuring the likes of Tim Boys, Ben Atiga, Scott Cowan and Fetu’u Vainikolo.
So it is with great anticipation that we await the start of the Super season, the development of the new Forsyth Barr roofed Stadium in Dunedin providing an exciting backdrop to what looms as an interesting season and future for the Southerner’s.
Highlanders Wider Training Group
Sam Anderson-Heather, Ben Atiga, Tim Boys, Liam Coltman, Glen Horton, Alex Ryan, Fetu’u Vainikolo
Highlanders Full Squad
Fullbacks: Kurt Baker
Wingers: James Paterson, Ben Smith, Telusa Veainu
Midfield: Kendrick Lynn, Siale Piutau, Matt Saunders, Shaun Treeby
First five-eigths: Robbie Robinson, Colin Slade, Lima Sopoaga
Halfbacks: Jimmy Cowan, Sean Romans, Aaron Smith
Loose forwards: Nick Crosswell, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Jarrad Hoeata, Nasi Manu, Alando Soakai, Adam Thomson
Locks: Josh Bekhuis, Tom Donnelly, Joe Tuineau
Props: Halani Aulika, Chris King, Jamie McIntosh, Bronson Murray, David Te Moana
Hookers: Brayden Mitchell, Jason Rutledge, Mahonri Schwalger
Highlanders Super Record
1998 Highlander’s losing Semi-Finalist
1999 Highlander’s lost to the Crusaders 19-24 in the Final – 1999 Runner Up
2000 Highlander’s losing Semi- Finalist
2002 Highlander’s losing Semi- Finalist