A HUGE HOLE- THE HIGHLANDERS MIDFIELD WOES

Ever since winning the 2015 Super Rugby title, the Highlanders have been on a steady downward spiral. In 2016 it was a semi-final defeat, whilst in 2017, 2018 and 2019 the side bowed out of the competition in the quarter-finals. 2020 saw the worst season since 2013, as they floundered pre-lockdown, where they looked a real chance at the wooden spoon. They did improve in Super Rugby Aotearoa, winning a respectable three games out of eight, but in the 2021 edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the standards have once again fallen. Barring a Jona Nareki masterclass against the Chiefs, the side has been well beaten in their games so far this season. 

Some would put the drop off down to coaching, whilst others would point to the mass player loss at the end of the 2019 season. However, the biggest issue in my opinion has been the Highlanders midfield.

Since winning the 2015 title, the Southerners have run out nineteen different midfield combinations over 82 different matches. This does not feel overly weird, considering there are nine midfields used once, three use twice, and one used three times. This means that 6 midfields have been named to start over the other 64 matches. For an area of the park that has proved dysfunctional, this seems baffling.

The side’s performances in 2016 and 2017 were still very close to that of 2015, before a steady decline beginning in 2018. Whilst some would say this is a direct result of Aaron Mauger’s appointment, I would suggest this is more a case of causation vs correlation. We need to have a look into individuals/combinations used, something which paints a huge picture.

MALAKAI FEKITOA

After 65 games for the Highlanders and 24 tests for the All Blacks, Malakai Fekitoa departed for Toulon at just 25 years of age. Some said that he was not playing anywhere near the same standard as in 2014-2016, but was this true? His defence had not dropped off, and he was still (and still is) making the huge hits on defence, whist barely missing a tackle. And this is firmly backed up by the fact that of the five most commonly used by the Highlanders since 2016, his combination with Richard Buckman, and then Matt Faddes (not exactly a notable defender) were statistically the best defensively, conceding an average of 17.7 and 19.3 points per game respectively.

Compare this to the 24.5 from 21 games with Walden and Thompson, 26.9 from 16 games with Thompson and Fekitoa, and the whopping 29.8 averaged by the midfield of Tomkinson and Thompson.

Now there is quite a bit to unpack there, but I think it confirms what most would say that Buckman and Fekitoa are the Highlanders best-ever midfield. Fekitoa being a key part in that as proved by his combination with Matt Faddes, a good honest toiler who was being talked about for the All Blacks whilst paired with the Tongan-born midfielder. The attacking stats back these claims up, with averages of 32.3 and 28.9 points scored in games those combinations started respectively, again the best two in those departments.

You get the picture here that Fekitoa was huge. 

ROB THOMPSON

The other big thing to note is his replacement, in the form of Rob Thompson. He formed quite an attacking midfield with Fekitoa himself which did sort of work, as they managed to score 28.1 points per game in games they started together, but when he was not with Fekitoa, you see extreme mediocrity. His much-heralded midfield with Tei Walden was quite frankly overrated, and they both played a part in it, whilst his combination with Sio Tomkinson was diabolical (more on him later.) 

Defensively he was always prone to a missed tackle due to over-eagerness, however, he appeared generally pretty solid, although this is something which steadily declined, as his performances dipped in 2019 and 2020 as his Highlanders career came to a disappointing end.

With the pill in hand, he was again initially solid being talked about for the All Blacks in 2018, before things fell off a cliff. His combination with Walden scored an average of 26.6 points per game, whilst his attacking exploits alongside Sio Tomkinson managed just 22.9 points per game. Simply not good enough to be winning matches, let alone titles.

SIO TOMKINSON

The most overrated Highlander EVER. Bar none. I have never really rated Sio Tomkinson, always questioning what he has been about, and as that picture became clearer my thoughts on him have become harsher and more concrete. 

He tries to dominate physically, but he isn’t big enough to achieve this with ball in hand. He has the body of a distributor, but that simply isn’t his game as shown by the low average amount of points scored between him and Thompson. 

Defence is supposedly his game, but for every big hit, there is at least one poor missed tackle when he races up either for the intercept, or the big hit when it simply isn’t there. This was a trait of Fekitoa, but the difference is that he managed to more or less nail the tackle every time. I think people are starting to notice his deficiencies, but with a lack of options, he is likely to get a stay of execution for the rest of the 2021 season.

THE BIG PICTURE

So look at the Highlanders drop off. Again, looking at the idea of causation vs correlation. In 2016 and 2017, the Southerner’s main midfielder was Malakai Fekitoa. In 2018 and 2019 it was Rob Thompson. In 2020 and so far this season, the main man in the middle of the park has been Sio Tomkinson. In my opinion, Fekitoa is the best of these three, whilst Thompson is a distant second. Tomkinson is third by default.

The men from the deep south settled for mediocrity following Fekitoa’s departure, persisting with Tei Walden for a long time, a steady hand but nothing else. Slowly the sides attacking and defensive exploits worsened, before the slight second-five was culled for Sio Tomkinson- which didn’t improve anything, continuing the downward spiral. 

You do have to be careful when using the average points stats for 2020, due to the lack of quality team-wide but it is still telling. Tomkinson did show slight improvements last year, but that took him from a bloke making up the numbers to a squad player. Not a nailed-on starting second-five.

Whilst NZ does have a lack of depth in midfield, the Highlanders have been guilty of showing a lack of desire to strengthen. Going into 2021, this looked to be changing as Tony Brown signalled his desire to try Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea in a new-look midfield, but a lack of fitness for the former and a season-ending injury in pre-season for the latter left 

Brown used Tomkinson and Ngane Punivai for the first two matches. Again this midfield struggled defensively, whilst they were nothing special with the ball in hand. To play the Blues, Tony Brown moved Punivai out the wing, bringing in Michael Collins. This magnified the Highlanders midfield issues more than ever. Rieko Ioane just burnt the Otago born and bred utility back, whose lack of pace was almost embarrassing, whilst Sio Tomkinson was woeful next to him. 

Most assumed that Collins would not be retained for the match up with Hurricanes, a game that appeared extremely winnable, but Collins was retained, with Brown clearly signalling a lack of faith in other options. 

The Highlanders forwards dominated their yellow (or white) counterparts, helping the home side retain 67% possession and 70% territory. Surely enough to annihilate your opponents? The answer to that is no. Jordie Barrett bullied the midfield, as the Hurricanes constantly carted up through the middle to score thirty points on the night. Having said that, with those stats would the home side be capable of winning regardless? Again no. Both Tomkinson and Collins failed to unlock their outsides, as the home side sat 27-7 down before Collins was hooked early on in the second half. In his first outing of the season, Umaga-Jensen made an immediate impact for the home side.

The question is, was that due to Umaga-Jensen being there, or Collins not being there? Whilst the truth certainly lies somewhere in the middle, it can’t be denied that this looks like Umaga-Jensen’s chance to have a major breakout. Outside him, he has the likes of Nareki, Garden-Bachop and Alaimalo if he can work his way back into the starting XV, outside backs who certainly have the ability to score tries, so if he performs chances are the Highlanders will improve.

At the start of the season, I think Tony Brown was leaning towards a midfield of Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea. In that, you have the hard-running physicality of the Wellingtonian, and on his outside shoulder would have been the wrecking ball in Paea, the closest thing to a good centre sighted in the south since Fekitoa. Whilst it wasn’t to be this season, if the pair can get going in 2022, then maybe, just maybe success is not too far away in the deep south.

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WHO’S BEEN LIGHTING UP THE MITRE 10 CUP?

With the Mitre 10 Cup over halfway through, the Super Rugby squad announcements are edging closer. Some franchises have already been busy, with the Hurricanes and Crusaders announcing several contract renewals, whilst the Highlanders have announced a trio of signings, along with confirming Tony Brown as their new head coach this morning. Many players have impressed, and most of the Super squads will be all but finalised, so I thought it would be a good idea to see which player from each Mitre 10 Cup team, is in line for a Super contract.

SOUTHLAND

The southernmost union in the Mitre 10 Cup have enjoyed their best season in recent memory, all be it that was not that difficult. New coach Dale McLeod has them playing some very strong, defensively tight footy which has seen the best of some of their forwards. Joe Walsh could well be in line for a deal after spending time with the Blues last season, whilst Greg Pleasants-Tate has arguably been their best performer. The player, who has impressed the most for me though, is Amanaki Nicole. The 28-year-old NZ Sevens rep, has scored just the one try, but has fed off scraps all season. He is big in size which is desirable in the modern game also. Nicole has broken tackles with ease and has a decent turn of pace. At 28, he is not young which may turn people off, but he could be an option for the Hurricanes to replace Kobus Van Wyk.

OTAGO

The Golden O has enjoyed an interesting start to the Mite 10 Cup season. Generally, the bridesmaid, but not the bride in the Championship, they have already held and lost the Ranfurly Shield. Tom Donnelly was promoted to the head coach role, and along with experimental assistants Lee Allan and Ryan Martin, they have played some attractive rugby. With a backline full of Super Rugby experience, and a pack who also has experience at higher levels, there is certainly slim pickings. Freedom Vaahakolo was brought down to Dunedin by the Highlanders, and has not disappointed so far in 2020, he is not small, but equally he is not huge either. He certainly has a nose for the try line. One of the unsung heroes of the team this season, has been Irish lock Jack Regan. Regan has been in New Zealand for a short while and managed to crack the Otago squad this season. A strong performance off the bench in round one, earned him a start in round two, and he has not relinquished his starting birth. With a 95% tackle percentage, he has shown a real hard nose. The Highlanders are said to be looking for a lock, whilst the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Blues may also be keen.

CANTERBURY

Known for closing out close games, Canterbury have stumbled in that department in 2020, losing three matches, all by one point. The side certainly is a little lighter on talent this season, but they are still strong. Young midfield backs Rameka Pohipi and Isaiah Punivai have shown touches of class but are still quite raw. Josh McKay is of course without a deal, and will surely be scooped up by another franchise, whilst Sevens Rep Andrew Knewstubb looks to be hitting his straps, but he is unlikely to be contracted. Upfront, Sam Darry has looked very good, but he is of course already signed to the Blues. A man who has slipped under the radar a bit is Shilo Klein. The American born hooker, is diminutive in size, measuring up at just 176cm, but he makes up for that in heart. He has carried the ball strongly, and clearly has the faith of the Canterbury coaches, playing the full 80 on a couple of occasions this season. At just 21, he could be a good option as a third-choice hooker. Whether it be the Crusaders, the Blues or the Chiefs, it would not be a surprise to see him in the picture on Super Signing Day.

TASMAN

The Mako are undoubtedly the most stacked union in New Zealand. Arguably the smallest region, it is very impressive. Laden with All Blacks, every week there is a mix of youth and experience. In amongst the All Blacks and Super Rugby talent, there have been some impressive youngsters- especially in the forwards. Front rowers Issac Salmon (Who has already seen some game time at the higher level) and Sam Matenga have looked like good prospects, along with Ryan Coxon who is not currently contracted for SRA 2021. They have had a locking crisis, but the mobile Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta has stood up. A strong ball carrier, who can put in a crunching tackle, but the man I think is line for a Super deal is Jacob Norris. Originally from the Waikato, Norris moved to the south to join the Crusaders Academy, and as a result has ended up at Tasman. Just like many others, the flanker he has been nailing people in the tackle, whilst has also shown strength over the ball. Norris is clearly a talent, but his issue may be lack of space in the squads. There could well be a spot at the Crusaders, as openside flanker Billy Harmon headed south to the Highlanders.

WELLINGTON

The men from the capital, have enjoyed mixed fortunes this season. Six games in they sit 3-3, but it could have been so much more. They dropped a silly game against Otago, whilst they suffered heartbreak in extra time against Canterbury. Along with that, they beaten the star-studded Auckland team, so it would not be harsh to describe them as inconsistent. Julian Savea has of course been playing for them, and it would be a surprise if he was not playing for the Hurricanes next season, as he has proved that he has improved his game. Halfback Kemara Hauiti-Parapara, has impressed, and will likely be picked up by the Hurricanes to replace TJ Perenara. The two men, who have caught the eye the most though are their hookers. James O’Reilly has been impressive since returning from a ban, but the name on everyone’s lips is young Tyrone Thompson. With Aumua, Coles and O’Reilly all unavailable, Thompson took his opportunity, making headlines for his 50m effort against the Bay of Plenty, bumping off several defenders on his way to the chalk. He is very similar to Aumua, with a strong running game clear to see. He is still quite raw, so he would really only be an apprentice next season. With the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Crusaders all already having two strong hookers, the Chiefs and the Blues could be the sides to battle it out for his signature.

MANAWATU

2020 has been a tough year for the Manawatu Turbos. Six games, six defeats, and they appear headed for the wooden spoon. There have been little positives for a squad lacking in talent, but their work rate at times, has been admirable. The backs have lacked a little quality overall, with struggles at first five especially. The forwards have feared a little better, especially in tight. Utility Micaiah Torrance-Read has seen a lot of game time, and whilst he has not always shone, he has shown good signs. The man that has shone the brightest is TK Howden. Howden is very young, just out of school so to see a tight forward playing at this sort of level is unusual. He looks to be one for the future, so he may only find himself a development contract, but that should not matter.

TARANAKI

The promotion favourites for many this season, Taranaki have underperformed in 2020. After a stellar start with the Barrett brothers, they were on top of the world and the holders of the Ranfurly Shield- but things unravelled. They now sit fourth, with a 3-3 record after snapping their losing streak against Southland. There have however been some positives. Kaylum Boshier and Tom Florence look like ones for the future, whilst Josh Lord has put in several strong showing, but the star of the show, has undoubtedly been Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens. The outside back first caught the eye in their Ranfurly Shield raid but has managed to maintain that form throughout the season scoring five tries. Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens has represented the New Zealand Sevens side, and at just 19, he has experience in several different backline positions. The Highlanders are said to be looking for a big outside back, and he could well be that man. The Hurricanes, Chiefs and Blues could also do with his services.

HAWKES BAY

The current holders of the Ranfurly Shield, Hawkes Bay currently sit top of the Championship. The Magpies have a young squad, yet one that is full of Super experience. The returning Lolagi Visinia has bulked up, and weighs in at over 100kg, and could well find a Super Rugby deal. A return to the Blues perhaps? The man, that I have gone with though, is Lincoln McClutchie it is a surprise to many, that the diminutive first five has not already secured a Super Rugby deal, but this year feels like the year. After a bit of time in Japan, McClutchie has only refined his game, making better decisions around the park. There is no doubt he has the pace and ball skills, but questions still remain about his kicking game, especially his goal kicking. He is still good enough to earn a Super Rugby Deal, with the Chiefs surely his most likely destination.

BAY OF PLENTY

The 2020 season has not been kind to the Bay of Plenty. They sit bottom of the pile, level on points with North Harbour. They have not lived up to their standards of last season, for one reason or another and that will be disappointing for them. The side has a fair chunk of Super experience, but many players are either on the older side or underperforming. This is why, I am choosing to shine the light on Nathan Vella. Vella is 30 years of age and spent the 2020 season with the Highlanders as injury cover. He already has one Super Cap to his name with Hurricanes. He is probably unlikely to get a contract, but with the injury of Kurt Eklund, the hooker has been classy. Brilliant at the breakdown, with a strong work ethic round the park, he has been one of the best for the Steamers. If one of the sides is on the lookout for a third choice, then they could do worse than Vella.

WAIKATO

The Mooloo men have surprised the masses in 2020, to sit second in the Premiership. This was no better expressed by their 16-15 upset win over Canterbury last week, thanks to a try well after the fulltime whistle. The match showed off many of their classy youngsters, with Rivez Reihana kicking the winning goal. Robb Cobb is another who has been strong this season, but the man who has stolen the show for them this season, is Xavier Roe. The livewire scrumhalf raised eyebrows after a dominant performance against TJ Perenara, in Waikato’s round one demolition of Wellington. From there, he has gone from strength to strength. With an aggressive running game, and a crisp pass, he is very similar to Brad Weber. He has shown a nose for the try line, and the 21-year-old is surely inline for a Super Rugby deal. Whether it be the it the Hurricanes, the Chiefs or even the Highlanders, Roe could be an astute addition for the future.

COUNTIES-MANUKAU

The Steelers have not been good at all in 2020. Despite having a decent looking side on paper, especially in the backline, but they sit second from bottom, with one solitary win. They have looked lacklustre, lacking direction meaning not many have shone. At times, Kirisi Kuridrani has shown why the Highlanders signed him up, but one would think he is uncontracted for next season. With no uncapped players really in line for a Super a deal, a man who could well be picked up if injuries strike is Alamanda Motuga. The loose forward is not the biggest, so he is certainly an openside flanker only at the next level. He had his performance of the season last time out against Otago, making several tackles throughout the match. Motuga plays in the most stacked position in New Zealand, but if injuries were to strike, Motuga could find the Blues come knocking.

AUCKLAND

After a shaky start to the season, Auckland have started to shake off the cobwebs, and somehow find themselves top of the table with just one defeat. They have been poor at times but have managed to scrape some important wins. Salesi Rayasi has of course been superb and should see increased game time with the Hurricanes next season. Several of their forwards have impressed this season, with Adrian Choat yet another good number seven, whilst Leni Apisai is on the search to re-earn a Super deal and has done himself no harm. The man who I want to take a closer look at though, as AJ Lam. The younger brother of Ben Lam is only 22 and looks to have buckets of potential. Whilst Rayasi has stolen the headlines, Lam has been just as good. Similar to his brother, he is big and powerful and could well have a career as successful as his brother. He looks to be skilful and has come in for praise from many this season, including Jeff Wilson. This has seen him linked with the Highlanders, as they attempt to find a big physical winger. If that was not to materialise, it would be a surprise not to see him earn a contract somewhere.

NORTH HARBOUR

Suffering from severe financial issues, many expected North Harbour to fall flat this season. They have battled well though, and currently sit sixth, just clear of the Bay of Plenty. Bryn Gatland has shown some career best form, whilst the returning Nic Mayhew has also shone. They have a several other guys who have experienced Super Rugby, leaving a couple of guys. Tim Sail, an openside flanker who has shown quality in limited minutes, but the undoubted standout in this category is James Little. The cousin of Michael Little has been around for a new season, but some time with the China Lions has seen him refine his game. His defensive efforts have been solid this year, with an 85% tackle percentage, as well as securing a few turnovers. With ball in hand he has been solid without being spectacular and could be a real facilitator for one of the Super sides. Probably more of a backup at this stage of his career, the Blues could do worse than the local lad.

NORTHLAND

The Taniwha have started the 2020 season well and sit in the running for promotion. One important point is they have faced five Championship sides in their first six matches, so the bigger tests are yet to come. The side is a combination of youngsters putting their Super Rugby experience to good use, along with returning veterans. With slim pickings, Pisi Leilua has had some nice touches, but following the trend in New Zealand, Jordan Olsen is aging like a fine wine. Promoted to skipper for the 2020 season, Olsen has gone strength to strength. His leadership has clearly been strong, whilst his tackling his also been solid. Olsen fits into the category of a backup rake, and sides could certainly do work especially if injuries strike.

So, these are the fourteen players, who have not (or barely) experienced Super Rugby, who could be in line for contracts come Super Signing Day. A mix of youth and experience, they all fill different roles. What it does show, is New Zealand is not lacking in hookers and openside flankers!

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Who’s Next Down South- A Look at Who Could be the New Highlanders Coach

After three years of backwards movement, Aaron Mauger has lost his job with the Highlanders. Towards the end of the season, the Highlanders had a mini-revival, but it was not enough to save his job. I have already done an article on why I thought Mauger should have been sacked, but I am a little surprised he has had the flick. In all fairness, the rugby the Highlanders played in the second half against the Chiefs and beyond looked a lot more like a Tony Brown-style than the slow, laborious, “Mauger-Ball.” One might suggest Brown took more control, therefore rendering anything that happened thereafter redundant in Mauger’s pursuit of a new deal. So, what happens now? The question now is not just who, but what. In this article, I am going to look at five options, and look at everything they would bring to the table

TONY BROWN

The one people feel to be the most obvious, sticking with the status quo in Tony Brown. Brown is universally loved by the Highlanders fans, having played 91 games for the franchise, to go along with four seasons as an assistant coach and one as the head coach. He is a popular figure, having brought the Highlanders some of their best results, including the 2015 title. His game plan involves flair and risk, something the Highlanders failed to show until their last three and a half games under Mauger. To me, it looked like Brown was having much more of an imprint on the game plan towards the season end, as we saw them put together an amazing performance to dismantle the Hurricanes to cap off the season. The players and fans love Brown, so it there any downsides? The answer is there are no obvious ones. He is reasonably inexperienced as a head coach; however, he has tasted plenty of success and in his one season as the head coach of the Highlanders, the side went 11-4 before falling in a rain-soaked Christchurch. The one major red flag would be whether Brown wants it. My gut feeling is, that Brown perhaps prefers being an assistant in a similar mould to Wayne Smith. With the complications of COVID, this feels the most likely. Appointing Brown, would also likely mean the appointment of a defence coach, but that is a story for another day.

JOE SCHMIDT

Option two, seems very unlikely so I will keep it brief- Joe Schmidt. The Kiwi is currently unemployed following a very productive seven-year spell with the Irish national side, in which they played some of the best rugby in their history, in which they achieved some of their best results. Schmidt has recently been linked to a job at World Rugby, but if COVID was to throw a spanner into the works, then he may well take interest in a potential shift south. Under Schmidt, the rugby was reasonably structured, however, there was also a touch of class and flair that is important in the Southern Hemisphere. Schmidt has never head coached in New Zealand at the top level and has not held an assistant role since 2007. He spent time with the Bay of Plenty between 2003-2004, before a three-year stint as an assistant for the Blues. This might mean he is slightly out of touch with the New Zealand game, and having had their hands burned by a Northern Hemisphere coach in Mauger, and seeing the disaster with Warren Gatland, I would expect the Highlanders to steer clear of this.

MARK OZICH

By far the biggest wild card out of the five options, Hawke’s Bay head coach Mark Ozich presents an interesting option. After a stint as backs coach, Ozich took the head coach role in 2018. In his first year, they were a defensive mess, going 5-5 before crashing out in the semi-final, 20-19 against Otago. Last year, they were much improved. The side went 7-1-2, playing some scintillating rugby as they suffered loses to championship winner the Bay of Plenty, and premiership champion, Tasman. They also lost the Championship final to the Bay of Plenty. The brand of rugby would certainly fit in down south and if he was to get the job you would be guaranteed to see more of young Folau Fakatava, although this may happen anyway. A red mark against Ozich is his obvious inexperience, and with Tony Brown being so crucial to what the Highlanders do, an inexperienced coach who has never worked with Brown may not be the best fit. Having opted for a coach with relative inexperience in Mauger, they obviously weren’t successful, but Jamie Joseph did not have a lot of experience when appointed in 2011, so this may be a moot point. Ozich is probably still slightly too raw, so all things considered he is unlikely to be the man for the Southerners, but equally he certainly has a big coaching future.

BEN HERRING

Another man who I feel would be well received in the South is Ben Herring. Following two relatively successful years with Otago, in which he secured the Ranfurly Shield, Herring decided to take a year’s adventure travelling around America. This saw him pick up some light work with the Free Jacks in Major League Rugby, but COVID put an end to that. Whilst coaching Otago, the rugby was electric- something very similar to the rugby played under Tony and Corey Brown. The style would fit in perfectly with Brown’s model and what most Highlanders fans want to see. Currently living in Wanaka, in a recent interview with Stuff, he stated he would return to coaching if the right job offer came along. This is surely that offer. Herring played three games for the Highlanders back in 2003 and did a bit of consultancy work for them around 2015 so he already has some links to the franchise. Like Ozich, he is relatively inexperienced, but he has been around the world and is slightly older which cancels those worries out. If Brown does not want the head coaching role, then I feel this is the most plausible option.

JAMIE JOSEPH

No, your eyes are not fooling you, I feel there is a chance Jamie Joseph could make an emotional return to the Highlanders. Joseph obviously had a well-publicised stint with the franchise between 2011-2016, most memorably winning the Southerners their maiden title. Loved by players and fans alike- just like Brown, not many would have reservations around a return. Currently, he is signed as the Japan coach, but with the complications of COVID meaning, he can’t currently enter Japan, could that all fall through? Joseph works well with Brown and brings a wealth of experience. He gave the Highlanders an identity and would be well received, but should the franchise look backwards? Some might argue they have done that with Brown, but he definitely had unfinished business, after leaving in 2017. It would not be my preference to look backwards even though I rate Joseph as a coach very highly. I actually believe he should have secured the All Blacks job last year. I do also think it may be too complicated for him to get out of his Japan contract.

Ultimately, the Highlanders are faced with a decision, that they don’t have an awfully long time to make. Chances are Herring and Brown are the only two in the mix for the role, but Schmidt, Ozich, Joseph and potentially other people like Tom Donnelly could end up sticking their hands up. Whatever the case as long as Brown keeps a large involvement the Southerners a heading in the right direction. In 2021, I am expecting to see around ten new players, joining the new coach. Billy Harmon has already been announced, and the rumour is the Highlanders were scraping the bottom of the barrel with potential signings. As a devout fan, I hope this is not the case and whoever the new coach us leads us to glory!

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DEPTH REQUIRED UP NORTH- A Potential 2021 Blues Squad

With the completion of Super Rugby Aotearoa and the Mitre 10 Cup fast approaching, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This is the fifth part of a five-part series, today looking at the Blues.

THE LOWDOWN

As is well known, the 2020 season was the best for the Blues in a very long time. The Northerners did really well before lockdown, while after they picked up a tidy 2nd place in Super Rugby Aotearoa, finishing with 5-2 record, with their final match at home to the Crusaders being cancelled due to a surge in Coronavirus cases in Auckland. Regardless, how will they shape up next year? Upfront, Ofa Tu’ungafasi was the form prop of the competition, and Sione Mafileo will also join him in sticking around at tighthead next season. Marcel Renata is off-contract, but it would seem best for all parties if he stuck around. At loosehead, Karl Tu’inukuafe looks like he may be getting back to his best, while Alex Hodgman was strong. Ezekiel Lindemuth is the other loosehead on the books, and I have someone in mind who could well end up playing in Auckland in 2021. Rounding out the front row, James Parsons is signed on but is surely coming to the end, while Kurt Eklund will look to continue to build on a very strong season. The Blues still need a long term option, so for that reason, Ray Niua is unlikely to get a new deal. At lock, they are well sorted, with Patrick Tuipolotu leading the contingent, backed up by utility Aaron Carroll, the more experienced Josh Goodhue and Gerry Cowley-Tuioti, while young Sam Darry will be there but it unlikely to see much game time. James Tucker is unlikely to be seen up north again. Loose Forward is another area they are strong, with Dalton Papalii and Blake Gibson being really strong openside options, while Akira Ioane is playing some career-best rugby on the blindside. Tom Robinson will be back from injury and will no doubt want to make an impact, while Tony Lamborn and the most impressive Blues loosie Hoskins Sotutu will look to build on strong seasons. Halfback has not been a strong point for the Blues for a while now, but Finlay Christie seems to have solved this issue and it would not be at all a surprise to see him in as the All Blacks no. 3. Sam Nock should be retained as a backup, while the much-maligned Jonathan Ruru may well be set free. This season, the Blues had five first fives on the books, and with Beauden Barrett heading for a one-year Japanese adventure, and Stephen Perofeta potentially viewed more as a fullback option, all of a sudden the Blues have more to ponder. Otere Black will be the starting first five, while 21-year-old Jack Heighton should get retained. That leaves the curious case of Harry Plummer. Plummer has not kicked on and the likes of the Hurricanes and the Chiefs may look to offer him a new start. However, Leon McDonald seems to be a fan of his and he hails from Auckland, so I would be surprised if he left. Dan Carter will not be seen in blue next year- surely. The midfield is strong but lacks depth. TJ Faiane and Rieko Ioane are a good starting pair, but with Tanielu Tele’a as the only backup they need to do some work. Tele’a is also off-contract but it would be surprising if he did not stay. On the outsides, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea will look to build on strong debut seasons, while Emoni Narawa showed he can mix it in limited opportunities. Matt Duffie will depart while keeping around Jordan Hyland feels pointless, but if there is nobody outstanding then he is not the worst option. The final player is Jared Page, primarily a fullback he is not signed for next year and at 27 he is yet to have made his way at this level. 

With this squad search, I have a lot more up to date information than the other ones I have written. Contracts have been announced, while a surge in COVID surely means we are in for Super Rugby Aoteatoa round two next year. Finally, on these signings, Blues CEO was quoted by Stuff as saying, “There will be a couple I think who will be a bit of a surprise.” Who are these surprises?

WHAT THEY NEED

All things considered, I am going to look at one loosehead prop, a hooker, a halfback, a midfielder and two outside backs for the Blues.

THE SEARCH

Loosehead prop requires little deliberation. The Blues could either decide to keep Ezekiel Lindemuth or potentially and the option I am touting, take a look at everybody’s second favourite rugby player, Rob Cobb. Cobb is an exciting prospect as well as having a great name and listed at 1.89m and 117kg he carries a big frame, something the Blues have liked this year. Despite being from Auckland, he played for Waikato last year and then got a sole appearance for the Chiefs this year. He would struggle for game time for the Blues, and with the Chiefs propping situation very much up in the air, they will face opposition. Still, if they want him I think they could and will get him

Option: Rob Cobb

Hooker is another one that seems reasonably clear cut. Kianu Kereru-Symes is the best available young hooker so they will surely move for him. Currently the understudy to Ash Dixon at Hawkes-Bay he has been touted for big things after captaining the NZ U20 team last year. He would be initially raw but as Codie Taylor and Dane Coles age out, Kereru-Symes and Aumua look the best rakes around. Kereru-Symes can also play prop which shows his size. There are certainly worse players to learn under than Ash Dixon at the moment especially. He would be a very shrewd addition if they could get him and they are unlikely to face much serious competition, with most other sides have plenty of hookers locked in. 

Option: Kianu-Kereru-Symes

Halfback is a lot less clear-cut. With Finlay Christie the likely number one and Sam Nock poised to play backup, they will still likely look to secure another scrumhalf. The Highlanders, the Crusaders, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs either have or seemingly have all three halfbacks locked in for 2021. The Chiefs are the only one up in the air with Brad Weber yet to re-sign. I do not expect him to move to the Blues by any means, but who will the surprises be? There is no obvious option that jumps out, so will the Blues re-sign Ruru? A slow pass is what holds Ruru back, and surely there will be a halfback in Auckland club rugby who makes the Mitre 10 Cup squad who can move past him. I believe the Blues will find someone, somewhere. 

Option: M10 Cup Prospect

In midfield, the Blues will look for a midfielder, most likely a second five although they might get a centre as well. Of all Super Rugby midfielders, only Anton Lienert-Brown appears to not be locked in. If he does moves, then you would expect that it would not be a move to the Blues. So once again they will look to the level below. Whoever joins, needs to be young and hungry, except for one man I am touting for second five. I will describe the centre first. Playing under Rieko Ioane they will not get much game time, but if there is an injury they could be thrust into the limelight. Could a loan from the UK be an option again? I don’t think so. Maybe they could nab a returning star but ultimately I feel this position is best suited for a younger guy. With the Blues running the opposite style to the history of NZ rugby, with the big centre and the finesse at second-five, then Julian Savea possibly would not suit the style, although he could play centre. Yes, I am suggesting the bus should park in Auckland. Now living in New Zealand’s biggest city, I expect to see Savea in a North Harbour or Auckland shirt during the Mitre 10 Cup. Savea could add some much need experience to the Blues as they strive for the top. This will be laughed off by many, but unlikely to start many games there are worse backups around.

Option: Julian Savea and M10 Cup Prospect

Finally, the Blues will look to strengthen out wide. Manasa Mataele is one option to be brought in. Mataele is often forgotten and he will surely depart the Crusaders in search of game time. The Highlanders, Hurricanes and Chiefs could all well feel he is worth pursuing, but none could guarantee him playtime. It certainly would be good for the Blues. The other two guys can afford to be a little younger. Ideally, one could cover fullback. There are not a lot of obvious options once more, so this could be a bit unknown. Could they offer Tevita Nabura a second stab at Super Rugby? Maybe Kris Kuindrani? Neither of these feel very likely, so they will likely give one of Jared Page and Jordan Hyland a second crack. I suggest Page at 27 is the better option. Finally, Jordan Trainor could well be offered a second chance by the Blues if he can put together a strong Mitre 10 Cup.

Option: Re-sign Jared Page, Jordan Trainor and Manasa Mataele

THE FINDINGS

After a strong showing in 2021, The Blues will be looking to build depth, as well as adding touches here and there. I have suggested Rob Cobb and Kianu Kereru-Symes could be signings that set them up for future success, while young halfback should also be in the offing. A youngster and Julian Savea could well build some decent depth, as they look to kick on, while Jordan Trainor and Manasa Mataele could come in and challenge for a starting birth. Finally, Jared Page could be offered a second chance.

2021 SQUAD

Karl Tu’inukuafe, Alex Hodgman, Rob Cobb, Kurt Eklund, James Parsons, Kianu Kereru-Symes, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Sione Mafileo, Marcel Renata, Patrick Tuipulotu, Aaron Carroll, Gerrard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Sam Darry, Akira Ioane, Tony Lamborn, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Sam Nock, M10 Cup Prospect, Otere Black, Stephan Perofeta, Jack Heighton, Harry Plummer, TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane, Tanielu Tele’a, Julian SaveaM10 Cup Prospect Second Five, Caleb Clarke, Mark Tela, Emoni Narawa, Jared Page, Jordan Trainor, Manasa Mataele

So this is the end of the series. I have found it rather intriguing to see who needs what and who they could get, as the season has ended expect things to start to move fast, as a lot of these articles already seem outdated! Be sure to leave a comment with your thoughts or a question!

If you enjoyed this, feel free to give me a follow on Twitter @Nicholasfriedl3

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA- Week 10 Preview

So, Flake has had a few issues, so you are stuck with me for the final Super Rugby Aotearoa preview of the season! With a lot of uncertainty surrounding the games, there is a lot of doubt of whether they will go ahead, but alas. On Saturday, the Highlanders will look to end their season on a high as they host the Hurricanes, while the champions-elect in the Crusaders, travel to Eden Park to clash with the Blues.

HIGHLANDERS vs HURRICANES- Forsyth Barr Stadium
Of the two games, this is more likely to go ahead. With the Dunedin and Wellington region sitting in ‘Level 2,’ this game is set to go ahead- without fans. 15,000 tickets have been sold for the clash, so the Southerners will be keen for a move back to ‘Level 1’ today.

These two sides have met just the once this year, five weeks ago in Wellington. That game was won 17-11 by the Hurricanes, although the Hurricanes were a lot more dominant then the scoreline suggested. The game was marred by something questionable reffing decisions, but ultimately the Canes were too good on that occasion.

Under the roof, the weather is not an issue, so this should be a really exciting affair, as both sides look to throw it around- I think there could be quite a few points in this one.

The Highlanders sit 2-5 but will feel that they could have won at least one more game in Super Rugby Aotearoa, but ultimately a 4th place finish is better than most expected. Since being 31-7 down against the Chiefs, the side has really turned a corner, through a switch of game plan that has seen them hold a lot more of the ball, as they throw the ball around the backline.

On a five-game winning streak, the Hurricanes will undoubtedly fancy themselves to pick up another win, to end a very strong season. Can they do it? TJ Perenara will miss this clash, which will hurt the Hurricanes, while due to a variety of reasons their bench does not look as strong this week. They will need their big players to stand-up

Something a bit different, I am going to give a player to watch for each team and an in-depth prediction.

After coming against the Chiefs, Josh McKay has been superb for the Highlanders. On attack, he was one who sparked it against the Chiefs, while he was very solid on defence against the Blues and the Crusaders. I think he might fancy himself a try or two this week.

With Perenara out, I feel Jamie Booth is poised for a big game. He actually made his Super Rugby bow for the Southerners, as a sprightly 20-year-old, so he has history. Someone who never stops running, with the heart of a lion, I don’t think the Hurricanes will miss Perenara as much as some think they will.

In terms of the game, I think there will be lots of tries and lots of points. It would not be at all a surprise to me if both sides crack 30 points. I think both sides will look to throw it around and we will be treated to some great tries. With Ash Dixon bringing up the ton and Aaron Smith the 150, I see the home side getting it done 36-33.

RESULT- Highlanders by 3

BLUES vs CRUSADERS- Eden Park
With Auckland sitting at ‘Level 3,’ currently, this game will not go ahead. In all likelihood, with the increasing number of COVID cases, this will not change and this game likely won’t proceed. So is there any point of doing a preview? Of course there is!

If the game goes ahead, then we will be robbed of seeing a full Eden Park, as the doors will almost definitely be shut. A sunny afternoon is forecast, so there will no issues with rain. The Blues may well have more hunger for this one, so expect them to turn up and be counted.

When these two sides last met, both were unbeaten, and many fancied the Blues to cause an upset in Christchurch- they did not. They put everything out there, but the Crusaders got it done 26-15. That hurt the Blues dearly, as they then slumped to a loss to the Hurricanes, which means this game is a dead rubber affair.

The Blues bounced back from those two defeats, with wins over the Chiefs and then arguably their performance of the season in Dunedin, with a bonus-point win over the Highlanders. They go into this one, hungry to end their season on a high after a superb showing.

Already crowned champions, the Crusaders might lack some motivation for this weekend, but after the drama with the trophy and a Scott Robertson speech, you would expect their motivation will be as strong as ever. They will want to silence anyone going on about a final, with an assured win in New Zealand’s biggest city.

Who are we looking out for in this game? This is quite tough as neither side has been named for the clash, but I will give it my best shot.

Slightly boring, but Hoskins Sotutu may well return from injury this week. Once the form player in the competition, he has ended up missing nearly half of the Aotearoa season with an injury. He will have a huge point to prove, to show that his form was not just a flash in the pan. Many will also hope for a debut from one Daniel Carter.

Having already won the title, then you could not blame Scott Robertson if he shuffles the pack. With that in mind, then I believe 20-year-old Leicester Fainga’anuku could well take many by storm this weekend. With buckets of potential, an injury to one of the Crusaders wingers next season could see him explode. I expect him to start and score a try this weekend.

This game is unlikely to go ahead, but if it does I think the game could be intriguing. With many of the players not used to playing in front of a decent-sized crowd, then I feel some might take a while to get going in the match. The Crusaders are known for slow starts, and in an empty stadium, away from home, with nothing to play for, I think it could well cost them, as they fall 26-22.

RESULT- Blues by 4

Hopefully, this was informative enough for you! As we head back into the unknown in New Zealand, stay safe, while the same goes for everyone worldwide.

If you enjoyed this, feel free to give me a follow on Twitter @Nicholasfriedl3

SUPER RUGBY AU- Round Seven Preview

So, Flake has had a few issues, so you are stuck with me for this week’s Super Rugby AU preview! As we head into the second half of the competition, the table-topping Brumbies hit the bye, leaving the door open for the Rebels to move into top spot this Saturday when they travel to Queensland to play Brad Thorn’s Reds. The Friday night game, says the winless Force ‘host’ the Waratahs. Let’s crack into the games!

FORCE vs WARATAHS – Cbus Super Stadium
In rather peculiar, yet not unusual circumstances, the Western Force will be hosting the NSW Waratahs in Queensland this weekend. The Tahs’ sit third on the table and had struggled until they burst into life with a 45-12 thumping over the Reds. The Force, sit 0-4, although they will feel they have deserved better than that.

Last time these two sides met, the Force stormed out a 14-0 lead before surrendering 23-14.
The Force will have felt they should have one that, and the fast start continued, repeated itself the following week before they tasted defeat against the Reds. The Waratahs have improved since then and you sense the Force have a rather large mountain to climb this weekend.

The game itself should be an exciting one, as both look to pedal to the medal. Some dodgy weather around kickoff, however, might mean a kicking battle is on show, which could well suit the experience of Ian Prior and Jono Lance. If the Waratahs start fast then the Force could be in for a long evening.

The Waratahs head into this one on the back of their surprising win over the Reds last week. While some predicted the result, it was the scoreline that shocked most people as they raced out to a 45-0 lead thanks to a Jake Gordon hattrick. The Waratahs worked well as a unit, showing what they were capable of. Young Will Harrison looks like a talent and a half…

As for the Force, they might be targeting this one as winnable. Coming into the competition, nothing was expected of them, many thought they were there to merely make up the numbers. They have been better than that. They really could of and should of beat one of if not both the Waratahs and the Reds, while they managed to take the Rebels to SUPER TIME. They are worth a win, and with the experience in the backline, including Richard Kahui this week, they might well be able to beat out the inexperience of the Waratahs.

If the rain comes, the chances of the Force increase. Can they cause, what would be an upset? Jono Lance could easily kick them to victory, but after last week, the Waratahs confidence will be sky-high.

RESULT- Waratahs by 6

REDS vs Rebels – Suncorp Stadium
In what should be the game of the round, the Reds will be looking to pick themselves up after they were resoundingly thumped by the Waratahs, while the Rebels will look to power to the top of the table after they dispatched of the Brumbies 30-12. Can the Reds bounce back or will the Rebels roll on?

When these sides met back in round two, we saw the first-ever Super Time as the sides were locked at 18 all. Unfortunately, Super Time was not so super, as we treated to kick every 30 seconds, as both sides feared giving away a penalty. Barring a 50m penalty attempt from Bryce Hegarty, neither side got close to breaking the deadlock.

With thunderstorms forecast for Saturday, all be it clearing by kick-off, we could be in for an interesting affair. If the field is wet, then the Rebels will likely look to control the game, something they are likely to be able to do better than the inexperienced Reds. Reece Hodge will be licking his lips.

The Rebels go into this one as strong favourites for me, as the Reds may well require a week to pick themselves up after that defeat last week. With the finish line not a million miles away, the lure of top spot and a direct route to the final will surely be enough motivation for them.

The Queenslanders are a young side and they will be in shell shock. Can big Brad Thorn wield some magic, or will this be another car crash on the coast? Unfortunately for them, I am feeling the latter.

RESULT- Rebels by 16

Hopefully, this was informative enough for you! As we head back into the unknown in New Zealand, stay safe, while the same goes for everyone worldwide.

If you enjoyed this, feel free to give me a follow on Twitter @Nicholasfriedl3

HOW LARGE IS THE MOUNTAIN- A Potential 2021 Chiefs Squad

With the Mitre 10 Cup start and the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa fast approaching or finished in the case of the Chiefs, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This is the fourth part of a five-part series, today looking at the Chiefs.

THE LOWDOWN

The Chiefs have had a disastrous season. 0-8, it doesn’t get much worse than that. They were nowhere near that bad, but it was what it was. Looking ahead to next season, Clayton McMillan will be there at this stage as an interim coach as Warren Gatland heads away with the British and Irish Lions, although with COVID it would not be a surprise to see Gatland still involved in some capacity. Regardless, on to the squad. It would not be at all a surprise to see the current front-rowers all return. That being, Ryan Coxon, Aidan Ross, Reuben O’Neil, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao, Atu Moli, Bradley Slater, Samasoni Taukei’aho and Nathan Harris, who missed the past season with an injury. At lock, it should also be much of the same, with youngsters Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Laghlan McWhannell and Tupou Vaa’i joining the returning Brodie Retallick and Michael Allardice, although he may potentially depart. Tyler Ardron has already departed. Loose forward is a place where the Chiefs will look to strengthen. Utility forward Mitch Brown should return, while Lachlan Boshier, Sam Cane and Mitch Karpik will continue as strong openside trio. Luke Jacobson will look to get back to his best next season, while Pita Gus Sowakula will look to build on a strong season. It would be a surprise to see Dylan Nel and Adam Thomson retained, so they will need replacing. The Chiefs are fine at halfback, with Brad Weber likely to return along with Lisati Milo-Harris. Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi will be looking to impress the new coach as he looks to rebuild his career. Similar to the Hurricanes, the Chiefs are very much in the market for first fives. Kaleb Trask has the inside running for the job, as Aaron Cruden and Tiaan Falcon depart for Japan. Moving into the midfield, where Anton Lienert-Brown is the only midfielder secured for next season. Tumua Manu is off to Pau, while Orbyn Leger has seen little game time. Bailyn Sullivan has seen no game time, while Quinn Tupaea has flattered to deceive as the season has gone on. Alex Nankivell started at second-five the last few games, but he is off-contract and I have touted him for a move to the Highlanders, so for the sake of interest, I am going to treat it as if he is leaving. Finally in the outside backs, even though I have mentioned things about him going to the Highlanders, Damian McKenzie will likely be playing for the Chiefs next season. Sean Wainui, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo and Kini Naholo will battle for the spots on the wing, while Sam McNicol might struggle to get a deal. Etene Nanai-Seturo rounds out the current squad, and his situation depends on the Olympics, and whether he decides to plays sevens.

WHAT THEY NEED

Now that it has been broken down, I believe the Chiefs will be looking for two loose forwards, two first fives and two midfielders.

THE SEARCH

Starting in the loose, the Chiefs look solid, but there is room for improvement. I feel these two players need to young and hungry. I am specifically looking for a No.8 to challenge Sowakula, and a blindside flanker. The number eight is very obvious for me, young Bay of Plenty player, Ajay Lafaele-Mua. Already mentioned for the Hurricanes, I feel Lafaele-Mua has a big future, so would be a shrewd addition for the Chiefs. Joining him is very much a lottery. Ultimately whoever comes in, won’t start therefore they should look for someone from the Mitre 10 Cup (If it goes ahead). The person who fills the role does not necessarily for the now and could be someone like a Mitch Jacobson who has dabbled at this level before, or it could a returning player like a Dan Pryor. In all likelihood, this will just be a youngster who puts in a strong showing for Waikato. 

Option: Ajay Lafaele-Mua and a M10 Cup Standout

The second target position for the Chiefs will be first five. Whilst Dan Hollinshead and Lincoln McClutchie could be options, I believe they will end up at the Hurricanes and the Highlanders respectively. This leaves just two options, who whilst boring seem fairly realistic. First is Bryn Gatland. Gatland is off-contract and feels nailed on to link up with his father back in his home region. An underrated ball runner and an excellent kicker, he could well end up as the Chiefs starting first five, although Kaleb Trask will have something to say about. The other man who I feel will join them is Fletcher Smith. Likely to leave the Hurricanes, Smith is also an option at fullback. As a third choice first five they could do a lot worse.

Option: Bryn Gatland and Fletcher Smith

Finally, the Chiefs need to bulk up their midfield. With Alex Nankivell potentially departing, the Chiefs need someone who can come in and start in the midfield, preferably a second five, whilst they could also do with another second five to bulk the squad out. With Nankivell potentially bound for the Highlanders, then I feel Rob Thompson could be a decent option to go in the other direction. Thompson has lost his way and his place in the side down south, but he could well be the perfect crash-bash midfielder for Warren Gatland. Whether he plays 12 or 13, it does not matter. Young Daniel Rona could be one to watch for the other spot. Recently out of school, he will be looking to make an impact for Taranaki in the Mitre 10 Cup. If the Chiefs are looking for more experience, then Tei Walden would not be the worst option.

Option: Rob Thompson and Daniel Rona

What if. What if, Damian McKenzie is to depart? I see this as unlikely considering he has a contract, but I have been told the Highlanders are sniffing around and could the draw to go south be too much for the Southlander to resist? What would the Chiefs do? Solomon Alaimalo and Shaun Stevenson have flattered to deceive, so investing in a fullback could be a good option anyway. Could a guy like Jordan Trainor fix the issues? I see that as unlikely, he is already 24, and if you have not cracked it by then, guys don’t tend to crack it. I suggested Josh Moorby could go to the Crusaders, but he is a product of Hamilton Boys, so he could be a decent wildcard, and the lure of game time is something he values. This is merely food for thought, and Moorby could be a solid edition, but I suggested he could end up at the Crusaders, all be it that feels extremely unlikely. Therefore, I am going to name him twice. 

Option: Josh Moorby

THE FINDINGS

The Chiefs can only improve for 2021. Whatever the format, with COVID about they are unlikely to see major squad overhauls. With Ajay Lafaele-Mua and a Mitre Cup standout joining the loose forwards, their young forward pack will back themselves to improve once more. First five is important for the Chiefs, and Bryn Gatland shapes as a low-risk option. He is likely to battle it out with Kaleb Trask and Fletcher Smith in an intriguing battle. Finally, in midfield, Rob Thompson could well be a shrewd signing, while young Daniel Rona could be a good project signing. If Damian McKenzie was to leave, it would certainly throw another spanner into the works

2021 SQUAD

Ryan Coxon, Aidan Ross, Reuben O’Neil, Angus Ta’avao, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Nathan Harris, Samasoni Taukei’aho, Bradley Slater, Brodie Retallick, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Michael Allardice, Tupou Vaa’I, Laghlan McWhannell, Mitch Brown, Luke Jacobson, Lachlan Boshier, Sam Cane, Mitch Karpik, Pita Gus Sowakula, Ajay Lafaele-MuaM10 Cup Standout, Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Lisati Milo-Harris, Bryn Gatland, Kaleb Trask, Fletcher Smith, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rob Thompson, Quinn Tupaea, Bailyn Sullivan, Daniel Rona, Kini Naholo, Sean Wainui, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Damian McKenzie, Josh Moorby

Who knows what is going to happen in the crazy COVID climate, but be sure to keep yourself posted, as I will look to get the Blues one out by Monday! 

If you enjoyed this, feel free to give me a follow on Twitter @Nicholasfriedl3

FIRST FIVE KEY FOR THE CANES- A Potential 2021 Hurricanes Squad

With the Mitre 10 Cup start and the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa fast approaching, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This is the third part of a five-part series, today looking at the Hurricanes.

THE LOWDOWN

The Hurricanes are the other New Zealand side without a coach confirmed for the 2021 season, but with the uncertainty of COVID, but more importantly a pretty good showing on the field, Jason Holland will surely be offered the job after a reasonably good audition. Onto the squad, The Canes have signed up youngsters Xavier Numia and Tevita Mafileo, which means that Fraser Armstrong and Pouri Rakete-Stones are going for one spot. At 28, Armstrong has some much-needed experience, and as the starting prop, you would imagine he will be the one retained for the 2021 season. Coles, Aumua and Riccitelli are all signed up, while tightheads Alex Fidow and Tyrel Lomax will be there for the long term. Big Ben May will surely move on, meaning a new tighthead will be required. Workhorse, James Blackwell will be joined by Scott Scrafton, Liam Mitchell and Kane Le’aupepe, while Isaia Walker-Leawere has yet to sign a deal. With question marks of age and ability for the latter three, Walker-Leawere surely will earn another deal. 2022, will surely be the year to target one of the Crusader’s locks. The Hurricanes loose forwards are set for a refresh, with Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Devan Flanders being the only ones signed. Gareth Evans and Vaea Fifita, are seemingly off, which will leave some big homes. Murphy Taramai will also do well to get a renewal. Into the backs, where halfbacks TJ Perenara, Jamie Booth and Jonathan Taumateine are all signed up, confirming they will be strong there again. The men from the capital failed to replace Beauden Barrett this season, which will see one of if not both Jackson Garden-Bachop (Who I have touted for the Crusaders) and Fletcher Smith. James Marshall is not signed up and he will also likely depart. One of those three will surely stay, along with Simon Hickey. The Hurricanes have a complete five-prong midfield contingent secured for next season, with Ngani Laumape, Vince Ason, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Billy Procter and Danny Toala all locked in for next season and beyond. Finally, in the outside backs, Jordie Barrett has just been confirmed for 2021, while Chase Tiatia and Wes Goosen are staying in the capital. Kobus Van Wyk and Ben Lam are going, or in the case of Lam gone, leaving just Jonah Lowe and Salesi Rayasi. With the uncertainty of the Olympics, Rayasi would be silly not to commit to the 15 man game, while the Canes would likely face little competition for the signature of Jonah Lowe.

WHAT THEY NEED

With this all in mind, The Hurricanes will be looking for a tighthead prop, three loose forwards, up to two first-fives and a winger. 

THE SEARCH

Starting at tighthead, the Hurricanes won’t have a great deal of worry with this one. With Lomax aged 24 and Fidow 22, the Hurricanes will likely target someone with a good older head. Ben May could well be welcomed back, but at 37 it is surely time for him to move on. The Canes could look to a guy coming out the Mitre 10 Cup, but I am going to bring to the table a current and a former Highlanders and Counties Manukau prop. The first option is 24-year-old Irish born Conan O’Donnell. Similar to Crusader Oli Jager, O’Donnell shifted to New Zealand for the sole purpose of playing rugby. After a solid Mitre 10 Cup, O’Donnell spent pre-season with the Crusaders, before debuting for the Highlanders. He is not huge in size, but he makes that up in other ways. Option two is Kalolo Tuiloma. The 30-year-old was playing in Major League Rugby, but I can only assume has returned to New Zealand due to COVID. The Wellington born Tuiloma is massive in size, in all ways and would be a good third choice.

Option: Kalolo Tuiloma

Moving into the loose, and I am going to bring forward three options, although there is one other guy who may well head to the Hurricanes. Tom Florence is that one, but as I have already touted him to go to the Highlanders, (He has been with them as an injury replacement this season) I won’t be delving further into him. The first option is Ajay Lafaele-Mua. Lafaele-Mua appears to be yet another bright talent, at number eight. With great raw skills and a big frame, there is certainly a lot to work with for the Hurricanes coaching staff. Being from the Bay, there is every chance he may well be snapped up by the Chiefs. Next, we have current Crusader Ethan Roots. Roots has seen next to no game time in Christchurch and appears off-contract. Similar to Lafaele-Mua, he comes with bucket loads of potential, and he would be a very shrewd pickup. Finally, is Mitch Jacobson. Jacobson, it a strong tackler and good on defence, so he could compliment the ball-playing of Kirifi and Savea quite well. Jacobson has however struggled to make an impact at this level, and may well fancy a shift offshore. Option: Ethan Roots and 2x Mitre 10 Cup Standout

Next is the big one for the Hurricanes- first five. Simon Hickey is locked in for next year, but he shapes as more of a backup. Having touted Jackson Garden-Bachop for a move to the Crusaders, it leaves the Canes in need of two first fives. Fletcher Smith is yet to be offered a new deal, and he has struggled to make an impact in the capital. I would expect him to move on. The final current Hurricane is James Marshall. At 31, he feels older than he really is and he may well get a one year deal. Can the Hurricanes do better? I have settled on one option for definite, who is likely to be joined by someone from the Mitre 10 Cup. That option is Brett Cameron. Whilst there are several other off- first fives, including Bryn Gatland and Harry Plummer, Brett Cameron is their man. Cameron is originally from the Hurricanes region and clearly has the ability. The 23-year-old made a very much premature All Blacks debut, but more than anything that signals just how much potential the coaches think he has. He has struggled for game time and confidence at the Crusaders, but if the Hurricanes pick him and back him, he could well be a long term option. Joining Cameron will be another first five. This is very much a fluid option. Whether it be a Dan Hollinshead or a Baden Kerr, the situation is fluid. It could end up being someone who shoots through at the Mitre 10 level and takes their chance, but ultimately most of the sides seemingly have a ten set in stone. 

Option: Brett Cameron and Dan Hollinshead

Finally, in the outsides, the Hurricanes will be on the search for a winger. With Wes Goosen likely taking one wing, it would leave the inexperience of Jonah Lowe and Salesi Rayasi to battle it out on the other wing. The Canes will be looking for one if not two wingers. There are a few guys who they could look at, but I am going to pinpoint two. The first of those is Tima Fainga’anuku. Fainga’anuku has been with the Highlanders this season but has struggled for game time after a couple of average games to start the season. A big, strong and powerful ball runner, Fainga’anuku may be looking to completely relocate, as he may well struggle for game time in Tasman this year. He could well be the perfect compliment to Wes Goosen. Similarly to other positions, if this was to fail, then an off-contract Crusader like Leicester Fainga’anuku could be an option the year after. The other option is Caleb Makene. Makene has been around a few years now, and after shifting back to Hawkes Bay, a big Mitre 10 Cup could propel him into the Super Rugby picture. Makene, may well be another average player, and the Hurricanes might want something more. I think the Hurricanes would also be well advised to carry a youngster, a twentyish-year-old, to simply get him up to speed.

Option: Tima Fainga’anuku 

THE FINDINGS

The Hurricanes have not been miles off the pace this season, and with a few additions, they will be right in it. Upfront, the changes won’t be too noticeable. Pouri Rakete-Stones and Ben May will depart, while the big Kalolo Tuiloma might be a decent backup. In the loose Ethan Roots will go a long way towards replacing the powerful Vaea Fifita, while the Gareth Evans sized hole will be left for someone from the Mitre 10 Cup. Assuming all three current number tens depart, current Crusader Brett Cameron and Dan Hollinshead could join the already signed Simon Hickey. Finally, on the wing, Tima Fainga’anuku will go a long way towards replacing the impressive duo of Ben Lam and Kobus Van Wyk. Despite the return of Salesi Rayasi, I would not be surprised if the Canes also carry a young winger, to get him up to speed for the future.

2021 SQUAD

Fraser Armstrong, Xavier Numia, Tevita Mafileo, Dane Coles, Asafo Aumua, Ricky Riccitelli, Tyrel Lomax, Alex Fidow, Kalolo Tuiloma, James Blackwell, Kane Le’aupepe, Liam Mitchell, Scott Scrafton, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Reed Prinsep, Devan Flanders, Ethan RootsM10 Cup StandoutM10 Cup Standout, Ardie Savea, Du’Plessis Kirifi, TJ Perenara, Jamie Booth, Jonathon Taumateine, Simon Hickey, Brett CameronDan Hollinshead, Ngani Laumape, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Vince Aso, Danny Toala, Billy Procter, Salesi Rayasi, Wes Goosen, Jonah Lowe, Tima Fainga’anuku, Jordie Barrett, Chase Tiatia.

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HOW TO IMPROVE A WINNING SIDE- A Potential 2021 Crusaders Squad

With the Mitre 10 Cup start and the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa fast approaching, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This is the second part of a five-part series, today looking at the Crusaders.

THE LOWDOWN

Unlike the other New Zealand sides, the Crusaders are settled. Regardless of whether they win Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Crusaders are by far and away the best side in New Zealand. In 2020, they have been as good as always, the only real blip the defeat to the Hurricanes last week, although the Chiefs did beat them before the Pandemic. They are an absolute juggernaut, so there won’t be too many changes. Up-front, expect all three hookers to be back next year, as Codie Taylor settles in the leadership group. I was surprised to learn Makalio was signed up for next season, as he could certainly get more game time elsewhere. At loosehead, Joe Moody will be back, and there is no reason he won’t be joined by his fellow loosehead, George Bower, Isi Tu’ungafasi and Harry Allan. There is every chance one leaves though. At tighthead, they Michael Alaalatoa, who has been in career-best form but at just shy of 29, his peak may well be short-lived. He is off contract, having just signed for Manawatu he looks to be staying in NZ, but no announcement has been made about a Crusaders contract. The other option is a 25-year-old Oli Jager, who is not quite of the desired level to start. At lock, they are by far the strongest in the country, with the likes of Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Quinten Strange, Mitchell Dunshea and Luke Romano. I would not be surprised to see Romano leave, whilst Whitelock can’t have too many years left in the legs. One would also assume that one of Dunshea or Strange will move on in 2021 or 2022, in a search to become a starting lock elsewhere. The Crusaders have a decent contingent of loose forwards, who are certainly super-powered by Scott Robertson. Ethan Blackadder, Whetu Douglas, Sione Havili, Tom Sanders, are fine, but through a combination of ability and age, they probably lack the potential to go to the next level. Cullen Grace is one for the future and the now, and could well be the long term No. 8. At blindside, Tom Christie looks like an All Black in waiting, while Billy Harmon has struggled to make an impact. With him off contract, he may well be told his future is elsewhere. Chances are, One or more of these will either leave next year, or the year after so loose forward could be a place to strengthen. At scrumhalf, they have three good number nines in Bryn Hall, Mitchell Drummond and Ere Enari. All are signed on for next season, so no worries there. First, five is slightly more interesting. With arguably New Zealand’s number one first five in Richie Mo’unga, they don’t have to worry about a starter. Their backups are a real issue. Brett Cameron has been extremely underwhelming, and David Havili has been favoured at ten over him. Cameron has to leave for the good of his career. Young Fergus Burke will continue learning his trade. In midfield, they have the classy pairing of Braydon Ennor and Jack Goodhue, but interestingly Goodhue is off-contract. Whilst he is likely to re-sign, it may include a sabbatical to Japan, but also he could just straight-up sign overseas, or even sign for another Super Franchise. They also have Fetuli Paea and Dallas McLeod who look sharp, as well as Inga Finau although he is 25 and is probably not up to the level of the others. I think a second-five could be in the offing. Into the Crusaders arguably most stacked positions, the outside backs. David Havili, Will Jordan, George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Leicester Fainga’anuku are all locked in for next year. Manasa Mataele will surely depart. They will need to be careful, as, for the good of his career, Leicester Fainga’anuku will surely head off in 2022. Likewise, David Havili may well look to cash in overseas as he hits his peak.

WHAT THEY NEED

With this in mind, the Crusaders will be in the market, although they don’t need anything drastic. I believe the Crusaders will be looking for a tighthead prop, a lock, an openside and blindside flanker, a first five, a midfielder and an outside back.

THE SEARCH

The Crusaders are famed for making talent- not buying it. At tighthead, they will be looking for “the next guy” Ultimately, I could go into depth recommending guys people have heard of, but ultimately that is not what the Crusaders will target. They will target a young, hard-working, skilful player, who has All Black potential. Scott Robertson is a wonderful coach, so quite frankly whoever the Crusaders go after is a fairly good chance to sign. This guy may well just be a 19 year old with bags of potential, or they could be a 22, 23-year-old who can challenge Jager and Alaalatoa now.

Option: M10 Cup Prospect

Once again at lock, it is much of a shame. Although, the lock the Crusaders target, will more than likely be a lineout lock. Whoever fills this position will be very young, as they are unlikely to play. In all likelihood, the player will be from Canterbury or Tasman.

Option: M10 Cup Prospect

At flanker, the Crusaders may well look to someone who has played at Super Rugby level and can come in and make an immediate impact. For me, there are two options. Both are off-contract Hurricanes players. First of all, is Vaea Fifita. Once the next big thing amongst NZ loose forwards, Fifita’s stock has fallen massively. Fifita is merely a bench player in the capital now, and with his contract coming to an end a move south could be a good move for all parties. At 28 Fifita is older than many realise, but he could come in and under the right tutelage of Scott Robertson and make a big impact. The other option feels a bit more far-fetched. In all likelihood, the reason Gareth Evans has yet to re-sign with the Canes is he is looking at a move offshore. Evans is a very good Super Rugby player, having gone from strength to strength in the capital, which saw him earn an All Black cap in 2018. A hard-nosed player, Scott Robertson would love Evans who turns 29 on Wednesday. Both would be decent short term options, whilst they will also look to bring in another openside flanker- Slade McDowell seems a logical option if he can’t secure a Highlanders contract, especially if he can build on a strong Mitre 10 Cup last season. 

Option: Vaea Fifita and Slade McDowell

Richie Mo’unga is arguably in career-best form, so whoever comes in will merely be a backup. In the next part of this series, I will be mentioning Brett Cameron with a shift to Wellington, so with both the Hurricanes first fives off-contract, I feel Jackson Garden-Bachop could be the perfect man to come in as an understudy. The 25-year-old has been good at times this season, and has a strong kicking game, with a real ability to close out a game. A move to Christchurch would certainly be one that would bring him a trophy of some sort. This feels logical.

Option: Jackson Garden-Bachop

In midfield, the Crusaders have millions of centres, but no real second fives. Jack Goodhue does the job, and he will continue to play there. If Goodhue was to go down, then utility back David Havili would likely move infield. There is a dearth of midfielders in New Zealand at the moment- especially second fives. I feel the Crusaders once again would be best served in securing a young guy who can grow into a world-class player. I don’t have a player in mind, nor a type of player. This will simply be a guy who stands out at the level below.

Option: M10 Cup Standout

Finally, in the outside backs, the Crusaders are stacked. The castle is likely to fall over in a year, as one or two of them look to move to pastures new. This season, Manasa Mataele is likely to depart, so a new winger will be in order. A left-field option could be Southland youngster Josh Moorby. Moorby is more of a fullback, but regardless he was a bright spark in a struggling Southland side. If Moorby can put up another strong season, then he could very much be an interesting option for the competition front runners.

Option: Josh Moorby

THE FINDINGS

After an extensive amount of research, I feel that one of the loosehead props will move on, potentially Harry Allan. Luke Romano is also likely to depart, whilst I feel Billy Harmon could be shown the door. Brett Cameron will move on for his good, while one way or another a new midfielder will come in. Finally, the once highly rated Manasa Mataele will almost definitely depart at the end of the season. As replacements, the Crusaders will look to top performers in the Mitre 10 Cup. These could include youngsters Slade McDowell and Josh Moorby, whilst an established name like Vaea Fifita could be an option in the loose. Finally, Jackson Garden-Bachop could be the perfect first five backup.  

2021 SQUAD

Joe Moody, George Bower, Isi Tu’ungafasi, Codie Taylor, Andrew Makalio, Brodie McCallister, Michael Alaalatoa, Oliver Jager, M10 Cup Prospect Tighthead Prop, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Mitchell Dunshea, Quinten Strange, M10 Cup Prospect Lock, Ethan Blackadder, Tom Sanders, Cullen Grace, Sione Havili, Vaea Fifita, Tom Christie, Slade McDowell, Bryn Hall, Mitch Drummond, Ere Enari, Richie Mo’unga, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Fergus Burke, Jack Goodhue, Brayden Ennor, Fetuli Paea, Dallas McLeod, M10 Cup Standout Second Five, Sevu Reece, George Bridge, Will Jordan, David Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Josh Moorby

WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT?- A Potential 2021 Highlanders Squad

With the Mitre 10 Cup start and the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa fast approaching, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This will be a five-part series, starting with the Highlanders.

THE LOWDOWN

In 2020, the Highlanders have been up and down, I have already done an article on the Highlanders coaching and results which is available on the website, but since I wrote that, there were some real improvements in that 33-31 win over the Chiefs. The Highlanders had a mass clear-out last year, so with a low-profile squad, there won’t be too many major changes this time out. Up front, it is expected that Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown and rookie Ethan De Groot will return. They will almost definitely be joined by Highlanders current co-captain Ash Dixon, Liam Coltman and Ricky Jackson. At tighthead, it has already been confirmed Jermaine Ainsley will join, presumably meaning Josh Iosefa-Scott will be out. New signing Jeff Thwaites will likely be back, while Siate Tokolahi could also be on his way out. The three young locks, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit will be back, while Jack Whetton’s future is unclear. The back-row contingent has impressed for the men from the south this year, and it is likely that the only two players departing from this area of the field, will be the uncapped duo of Zane Kapeli and Sione Misiloi. In the backs, the inspirational Aaron Smith is signed on until 2022, whilst youngster Folau Fakatava should be back. I believe Kayne Hammington is off contract, although considering he now plays for Otago, one would imagine he will get a new deal. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt will look to continue their blossoming relationship next year, which will likely see the off-contract Bryn Gatland link up at the Chiefs with father Warren. In my opinion, midfield has been a real weak point for the Highlanders since Malakai Fekitoa’s 2017 departure. I think there could be a real shake up on the cards. The powerful Sio Tomkinson is likely to return, whilst utility backs Michael Collins, (who is off contract,) Ngane Punivai and Scott Gregory may make a move infield. I have heard Tei Walden is not going to be offered a new deal, while it would not be a shock if Thomas Umaga-Jensen heads for pastures new. Most intriguing is Rob Thompson. Thompson has been a fan favourite down south, but ever since a wonderful 2018 season, he has spiralled downwards. His poor performance against the Chiefs, was a large part of why the Highlanders were down by so much, and it saw him hooked at halftime. Michael Collins moved into the midfield and linked the attack in a way not seen since Fekitoa’s departure. Thompson is off contract and turns 29 this August. The rumour is he moving to the Bay of Plenty, so a move to the Chiefs to pair him up with Anton Lienert-Brown might be a possibility. Finally, the outside back contingent for 2021 looks pretty clear cut. Jona Nareki will look to build on a promising start, whilst a good performance against the Blues this Sunday, should be enough to see Josh McKay secure a new deal. Nehe Milner-Skudder, Connor Garden-Bachop and Vilimoni Koroi are also already signed up. Of the other Highlanders outside backs, Sam Gilbert may secure a deal if he can prove he is fit after his horror ACL injury. I am sure the side will be keen to avoid another Milner-Skudder situation from this year. It would be expected that Tevita Nabura, Chris Kuindrani and Timaa Fainga’anuku depart.

WHAT THEY NEED

From my research and my hunches, I believe that the Highlanders, may be on the lookout for a new tighthead prop, a lock, two loose forwards, a first five and two midfielders. Dependant on a few other factors, they may also be in the market for an outside back, a halfback and a hooker.

THE SEARCH

First of all, I am going to very briefly touch on tighthead prop. This is relatively simple. They will likely either resign Siate Tokolahi, or exciting prospect Saula Ma’u. Ma’u made his debut for Otago last year and was training with the Highlanders until a surgery. Standing at around 6”2 and weighing around 130kg, he is a huge unit, but he is definitely more than just a scrummager. Option: Saula Ma’u

At lock, I have come up with four options. Options one and two are the very inexperienced Will Tucker and Josh Hill. Tucker nearly made his Highlanders debut, after coming in as an injury replacement, he was named on the bench for a match against the Jaguares which ended up being called off due to COVID-19. Hill is a similar player to Josh Dickson, but probably needs to bulk up a bit to play at this level. The other two options are rather unlikely. Due to COVID, it is not entirely impossible that former Highlanders return to New Zealand, two of which being Tom Franklin and Jackson Hemopo. Franklin feels very far-fetched, and almost definitely won’t happen but never say never. Hemopo only signed a one-year deal in Japan, so I believe he may well be able to come back to New Zealand. My issue with Hemopo, is I feel he is more likely to go to another franchise in New Zealand if he was to return. With three young locks already, I think the Highlanders would be better served finding someone slightly older. I am very much keeping my mind open and a good performer from the Mitre 10 Cup, could be the person to take this spot. Option: Will Tucker or a wildcard returnee NZer

Moving into the loose forwards, and both these players won’t be seeing much game time. I felt Shannon Frizzell was a certainty to go overseas in the near future, but COVID has changed that, so with him, Mikaele Tu’u, Ben-Nicholas and Parete they are well served at 8 and 6. They have two good 7s in Hunt and captain Lentjes, which rules out a signing there, except for maybe local lad Slade McDowell. I really struggled to come up with some options in this department, and in all likelihood, these places will be taken by guys who impress in the Mitre 10 Cup. This could mean a strong campaign from Misiloi, could earn him another crack at the whip, while a strong showing from injury replacement Tom Florence could earn him a full-time gig down south. The only other option I have come up with, is once again a left field shout for a returning Highlander. A hero in the eyes of many, I am touting the idea for them to sign 31-year-old, 65 cap Highlander Nasi Manu. Having just left Treviso, he is without a club and has been in Dunedin. Unlikely to play many games, Manu could teach the likes of Mikaele-Tu’u a lot. As we have seen, Zane Kapeli and Sione Misiloi have not taken the field, in fact they have not gone close- especially Kapeli. I would be very much for this. Other options include, Mitch Jacobson, or potentially Dylan Nel and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis dependent on their contracts. As mentioned, someone will stick their hand up in the Mitre 10 Cup and take this spot. Option: Nasi Manu and Tom Florence/M10 Cup Bolter

Into the backs, and to the position that really inspired this article, first five. Many will be saying the Highlanders have three good tens, and that would be correct. Having said that Bryn Gatland is off contract, and a shift to the Chiefs would make sense for all parties. Whilst there are many different options for this one, I am going to talk about two and one will shock you. The first option is Lincoln McClutchie. McClutchie has spent time training down south before and was unfortunate not to pick up a Super Rugby contract this past season. He runs the ball well, which would fit in well down south, so he ticks those boxes. His kicking has been a bit of work on, but with Mitch Hunt looking like the fullback option for now at least, this is less of a problem. The issue with this one, is he probably would fancy himself to get more game time at the Hurricanes or the Chiefs. The second option would be arguably the biggest signing in Highlanders history. He was born in Southland, so he has ties to the franchise. Damian McKenzie. The 25-year-old is one of New Zealand’s best, and is realistically would play fullback, but he could easily fill the spot as the third ten. The man who inspired the article, is settled in Chiefs country, and is signed on until 2021, so why am I touting this. I have heard from a very reliable source, that the Highlanders are chasing him hard and there is interest from McKenzie. The ILT are said to be keen to sponsor the deal, so it seems as though money wouldn’t be an issue. This may well be one for 2022, but if he is going to come in 2022, then I am sure that will involve a new deal with the NZRU and I am almost certain, he could work out a way to change franchises with a new deal. Option: Damian McKenzie and Lincoln McClutchie

The penultimate section is the midfield. With two to three departures, then the Highlanders will probably be looking for one to two midfielders, dependent on whether Rob Thompson stays. My gut feeling is, that the game against the Chiefs will be the beginning of the end for him. Finding midfielders was extremely tough, but to fill the two spots, I have come up with some options. Firstly, I believe the Highlanders could look at a guy like Tanielu Tele’a. Tele’a has not seen too much game time at the Blues this year, and with Rieko Ioane nailing down the centre spot, his opportunities look like they will be hard to come by. He certainly has potential, and maybe just maybe he could be the next Fekitoa? I have not seen a lot of him, but distribution seems to be a bit of an issue for him, and considering Rob Thompson is on the chopping block is more or less for that reason, this could be a real red flag. The Highlanders are unlikely to move for him at this time. The other option is Alex Nankivell. Nankivell is off contract as far as I can tell, and he could well be the glue the Highlanders a looking for. Dependable, a good ball runner, good distribution, more or less everything the Highlanders have been looking for. At just 23, he has time on his side, and he could be a great option. This comes with a caveat though- fitness. Nankivell has struggled with injuries, but as he hits his peak years, one might hope he can stay fit. Once again with this one, the Mitre 10 Cup is probably where they find their man, as they really don’t want to be left with an average option.

Option: Alex Nankivell and a Standout M10 Cup

Finally, I am going to looks at the maybes. A hooker, a halfback and an outside back. At hooker, if Ash Dixon decides to earn a quick buck in Japan, then Kianu Kereru-Symes, who has spent time in Dunedin training, could be an option, or the young Flynn Thomas. Thomas was very highly rated but has stunted slightly. He has been playing club rugby in Dunedin this year. I feel Hammington is very unlikely to go, but if he did, then I think that the Highlanders may well look to the young James Arscott. Arscott has been training with the Highlanders for the past couple of the years, and he is likely to see game time with Otago this year. Finally, when looking at outside backs, I think Sam Gilbert will probably get the contract regardless of fitness, especially if Damian McKenzie signs. If McKenzie was to sign, then another first five might be in the offing, which is where McClutchie comes in.

THE FINDINGS

Putting everything I think, I know and I learnt togtether, I think that Josh Iosefa-Scott, Siate Tokolahi, Jack Whetton, Zane Kapeli, Sione Misiloi, Bryn Gatland, Tei Walden, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Rob Thompson, Tima Fainga’nuku, Tevita Nabura and Chris Kuindrani will leave, a total of 12 departures. Of the twelve, I feel that there is every chance Tokolahi and Thompson do stay, all be it on one-year deals. I would also say there is a small chance Misiloi, Umaga-Jensen and Gatland return, but I am 100% confident the other seven will depart. Replacing these players, could be Jermaine Ainsley, Saula Ma’u, Will Tucker, Nasi Manu, a standout flanker from the Mitre Ten Cup, Alex Nankivell, a standout second five from the Mitre 10 Cup and last but certainly not least Damian McKenzie

2021 SQUAD

The potential 2021 Highlanders squad: Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Ethan De Groot, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson, Jermaine Ainsley, Jeff Thwaites, Saula Ma’u, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Will Tucker, Shannon Frizzell, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, James Lentjes, Jesse Parete, Tom Florence, Nasi Manu, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt, Damian McKenzie, Lincoln McClutchie, Sio Tomkinson, Alex Nankivell, M10 Cup Standout Second Five, Scott Gregory, Ngane Punivai, Michael Collins, Connor Garden-Bachop, Jona Nareki, Josh McKay, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert.

The next part of this series will be the Crusaders, so make sure to follow me @Nicholasfriedl3 on twitter to know when it has been posted.