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Joseph’s injection a welcome addition, but Highlanders face uphill battle with new blood aplenty in transitional season

22nd February, 2024
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22nd February, 2024
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The Highlanders picking up the mantle of the black sheep of the Kiwi rugby teams from the Blues has meant the team has become the butt of many a joke for Kiwi fans.

Truth is, it is easy to forget how good a side the team was back in the late 2010s, winning their first title in 2015, and making finals for five years running. While it has been a comedown under Clarke Dermody, that has mostly come about from their current inability to knock off their fellow Kiwi sides.

Unfortunately for Highlanders fans, it’s been a long time. Currently, they are on a 16-match losing streak against other Kiwi sides, with their last victory being a 35-29 win against the Blues in Round Eight of Super Rugby Aoeteroa, in April 2021.

Ironically, what has kept them in the hunt for finals is that their form against Australian and Pacific sides has still been solid, sneaking into eighth place in 2022 before just missing out in last year’s season.

Thomas Umaga-Jensen of the Highlanders charges upfield.

Thomas Umaga-Jensen will be a major loss for the Highlanders, out this season due to injury. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Dermody comes into 2024 with significant change needed to bring the men from Dunedin back into the fold – but fortunately for him, a major asset has just been appointed as the Highlanders Director of Rugby.

2024 Summary 

Any club would give up their best scrum machine to access Jamie Joseph for a week, but having him as your Director of Rugby is a massive coup for the Highlanders. 

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Ever since he departed Otago after leading the Landers to their premiership, Joseph’s star has continued to ascend, transforming Japan’s national side into a strong, competitive outfit, getting them to their first-ever quarter-finals at a World Cup, and securing their transition into a Tier 1 rugby nation, the first in Asia.

However, as they say, you can take the boy out of Otago, but you can’t take the Otago out of the boy – and when the Landers needed him, he returned.

It is important to acknowledge how much of an influence Joseph will have on the organisation, not just the players, but Dermody and the coaching staff too. He will know how to get that squad humming again, provide clear direction for the staff, and provide them with the means to back themselves and deliver results.

It is such a shame though that the Highlanders have said goodbye to so much talent – in a hypothetical scenario, if Joseph had only joined a year earlier, the squad at Forsyth Barr in 2023 could have really turned things around.

As it is, 2024 will be a challenging year for the Highlanders – despite welcoming Joseph back to their ranks, they have said goodbye to a mammoth 23 players from last year.

That departing group contains veteran players like Rhys Marshall and Aaron Smith, exciting new All Blacks like Shannon Frizell, and even reliable clubmen like Marty Banks, Scott Gregory and Mitch Hunt.

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While five players will still be connected to the Otago and Southland NPC franchises, the Highlanders, despite being regarded as New Zealand’s weakest side at present, will undergo arguably the most significant change, and by extension, the most significant challenges, any Kiwi side will face in 2024. 

Squad & New Inclusions

The Highlanders have, by a considerable margin, the least amount of international representation in their squad. Five players have international experience, only three of whom have played for the All Blacks. 

However, it is important to recognise where those players are, and with two world-class props in  Jermaine Ainsley and Ethan de Groot in the front row, the scrum should still be on firm footing. 

Folau Fakatava will be an invaluable player at scrumhalf, and he’ll be bolstered by a valuable new arrival in Welshman Rhys Patchell at flyhalf. With exciting Los Pumas talent Martín Bogado in the back three, key positions across the park will be covered.

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

However, look beyond to the wider squad and things look a little more shaky. The Highlanders will be welcoming 12 new players into the squad in 2023, with six players coming from Otago and Southland, and all having played 27 NPC games or less. 

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It does offer up a significant question of depth at the Highlanders, but they will be well supported by the other inclusions of Mitchell Dunshea arriving from the Crusaders and veteran Tom Sanders who returns from Japan in the forward pack.

In addition, they will be joined by the likes of exciting centre option Tanielu Teleʻa and winger options Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai joining from the Blues and Moana Pasifika respectively. 

Combined with the established talents of captain Billy Harmon, Will Tucker, Josh Timu, Connor Garden-Bachop and Jonah Lowe, the Highlanders will have options available.

Aaron Smith of the Highlanders runs with the ball

Aaron Smith will headline a large contingent of Highlanders players heading overseas. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Squad: *denotes new signing

Props: Jermaine Ainsley, Ethan de Groot, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Rohan Wingham* 

Hookers: Henry Bell*, Ricky Jackson*, Jack Taylor

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Locks: Mitchell Dunshea*, Fabian Holland, Pari Pari Parkinson, Will Tucker

Loose Forwards: Nikora Broughton, Oliver Haig, Billy Harmon, Max Hicks, Hayden Michaels*, Hugh Renton, Tom Sanders*, Will Stodart*, Sean Withy

Scrumhalves: James Arscott, Folau Fakatava, Nathan Hastie

Flyhalves: Ajay Faleafaga*, Cam Millar, Rhys Patchell* 

Centres: Jake Te Hiwi, Tanielu Teleʻa*, Josh Timu, Matt Whaanga

Wingers & Fullbacks: Martín Bogado, Connor Garden-Bachop, Jonah Lowe, Jona Nareki, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens*, Timoci Tavatavanawai*, Sam Gilbert

Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders reacts during the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on February 25, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Folau Fakatava is set to be one of the key players for the Highlanders in 2024. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Strengths & Weaknesses

Truth be told, the numbers do not stack up well for Dermody and the Highlanders. On several occasions, his tactics have been able to ask questions and stay in the fight in many contests in the 2023 season, especially against non-Kiwi opposition.

However, like with the Rebels, the squad often fell away in the back half of games, allowing the opposition to grab come-from-behind victories or worse, pile on the points. 

The squad as a whole struggled hugely with an ability to score points and achieve go-forward in attack – sitting in second last for tries scored and defenders beaten, and last overall for clean breaks, carries and metres gained. 

Concerningly, they also sat second last for tackles won (83%) and had the fourth worst scrum in the competition, winning 79% of their scrums.

This suggests a couple of key things: that the team struggles with offence and sticking to structure when momentum swings in the opposition’s favour, but also that their depth issues are significant and that the reserves coming on can’t manage to maintain the momentum and see the team home. 

Shannon Frizell of the Highlanders

Shannon Frizell is a major loss for the men from Otago. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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In 2024, those depth issues have only gotten worse, not better. 

While some decent talent has been brought in as cover, the Highlanders will be coming up against much more decorated teams on both sides of the Tasman – should they lose any significant players (such as Ethan de Groot – who will be out of their first fixture against Moana Pasifika), the scales further tip in the opposition’s favour. 

While Jamie Joseph will provide some much-needed leadership and direction for the young squad, Dermody can resort to the element of surprise tactically. When able to stick to strategy, the Highlanders have been able to challenge a lot of teams with more experienced players, and they could steal a few clashes.

They will really need to drill their players on such tactics to have a chance to stay in the contest. But, judging by their decision to field a stronger side during trials, this focus on tactics and strengthening cohesion could prove fruitful to build momentum.

Fixtures

The Highlanders will kick off their campaign hosting Moana Pasifika, a welcome start to the season and much needed to further strengthen team dynamics. Super Round will see them face the Blues in the first clash of the weekend, followed by a trip to Sydney to face the Waratahs.

Week Four will see their second clash of the season at home, where they will take on a strong Brumbies outfit, followed by a trip away to Hamilton. However, they will enjoy their last clash before the bye at home, welcoming the Hurricanes. 

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Straight after the bye, the Highlanders will immediately commence their Australian tour, playing away matches against the Rebels and Reds before returning home to host the Western Force. They will then travel to Tonga for their historic second clash against Moana Pasifika, before returning for the South Island derby clash against the Crusaders, which they will host in Dunedin.

The Highlanders will finish the back half of the season with trips to Auckland and Wellington in Rounds 13 and 15 respectively, and will host the Fijian Drua as their final home match of the season in the penultimate round of the competition.

Predicted Finish: 11th

While Jamie Joseph will be a huge influence on the Highlanders, a squad with plenty of question marks around their depth and an unfavourable draw with no back-to-back weeks at home will mean the Highlanders will have their work cut out to make finals.

Finals are still very achievable for the men from Otago, given last year’s 11th-placed Rebels were still in the hunt going into the final round of the season, but to achieve such a goal will be a significant uphill battle in 2024.

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