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.
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.
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.
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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