SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – ROUND FOUR PREVIEW

Its the Forth round of Super Rugby Aotearoa and we are finally set to get the massive match up we have been waiting quite some time for on Sunday, the Blues host the Crusaders at Eden Park. Before that crushing fixture, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs will battle out for their first victory of the season when they clash at the cake tin. Its another intriguing round of the competition! After a horrid display last weekend, the Highlanders sit on the bench this weekend. Shane was again a champion to come on and have his say again this season and you can catch that stream below and be sure to turn into the channel on Youtube on a Thursday afternoon to catch the stream each and every week! If you want a quick overview, check out below the video!

Join Shane and myself LIVE each week around 5pm NZT for stream! Be sure to tune in.

HURRICANES vs CHIEFS – Hurricanes +2

Two teams head into round four of the competition without a victory and you can only hope one of them will manage it this weekend when they meet. Before the teams were announced, I was pretty comfortable in picking the Hurricanes to pick up the win after seeing the second half destruction of the Chiefs over the last two weeks, but the starting 15s almost changed my mind. Both sides have issues in the halves with Kaleb Trask and Orbyn Leger running the show in the 10 jumpers after injuries took their toll on the two sides options. The forward battle should be a real tussle for dominance so if either sides front row can have the game of their season it could go quite some way to guiding their team on the front foot through the set piece, if you cant win that area then it may be a long night. The backlines can cause plenty of havoc but if the pack doesn’t work it wont matter too much. The Hurricanes have switch Julian Savea to the right wing too which is an odd choice for a position that usually has a fullback option to cover back, but I expect Salesi Rayasi to instead cover that from 11 instead. Are the ‘canes thinking outside the box or just searching for a difference… we will find out Saturday, but I still like the home town win in a close encounter.

BLUES vs CRUSADERS – Crusaders +5

Here it is… the game New Zealand and rugby fans around the world have been waiting to see. Blues fans believe they have the goods to topple the champions Crusaders side this year after missing out on the final chance at the end of the season in 2020. Where the Blues could fall short again in one of a couple of areas which fall into the same category – the mental state. The Crusaders will know the plan and believe in their process and how they can execute over the 80, or more, minutes. If the Blues trail by 5 with 5 minutes to play, how are they mentally? If they fall behind early, do they have that battle to find their way back against a team like the Crusaders. You cant question their ability, from either side, but its just a monumental shift to topple one over the best teams in Super Rugby history. Yes, the Blues can win this game if things go to their plan and they have some standout performers throughout to shadow over the Crusaders but its a lot of rest on to see my change my pick for the game of the weekend. Crusaders to do the job in the garden of Eden by 5 points on Sunday.

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – ROUND TWO PREVIEW

Super Rugby Aotearoa is finally back! Two more matches take place again this weekend, despite the late change for the second match all matches are all scheduled to go ahead. Fridays night fixture will see the Chiefs open up their season at home again round one losers the Highlanders. A similar story on Sunday afternoon will see the Crusaders taking on the Hurricanes. The Blues sit out on the round on the bye. Shane was again a champion to come on and have his say again this season and you can catch that stream below and be sure to turn into the channel on Youtube on a Thursday afternoon to catch the stream each and every week! If you want a quick overview, check out below the video!

CHIEFS vs HIGHLANDERS – Highlanders +5

These are two evenly matched up sides who will be desperate for victory. Much like the later game this round the pack will be the decisive factor, something the Highlanders really struggled with in their opener against the Crusaders. The home side however are a very unknown entity. There is some interesting match ups, none more so than Bryn Gatland lining up for the Chiefs this season, just a year on from stealing victory in a Highlanders shirt. Added to that, Sione Mafileo from the Blues and Jonah Lowe from the Hurricanes all making their first show in their new team. Thankfully Damian McKenzie starts at fullback which should be a good attacking threat for the Chiefs along with plenty of depth off the bench for the Chiefs as well. Highlanders also have more power on the bench this week, players like Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Liam Squre, Aaron Smith and Solomon Alamalo all the make an impact. Thats right, Falou Fakatava starts this week… contract sweetener maybe?

CRUSADERS vs HURRICANES – Crusaders +10

So our Saturday night double header is a thing of the past with our second match being moved to Sunday given the covid restrictions in New Zealand that could possible end on Sunday morning. But lets sum this game up in just a short piece, lets just show a replay for last week and change the Highlanders into a yellow jumper. I am expecting another forward dominated performance from the Crusaders who will show the same control over the game as they did against the Highlanders. How do the Hurricanes win? That’s tough, but avoid the set piece and try to keep the game open and expansive. It will be tough especially with the Crusaders at home, which is why I just cant go past them for the victory.

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – ROUND ONE REVIEW

It is a mouth watering opening weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa! The Highlanders hosted the opening match of the season at Forsyth Barr Stadium under the roof against the defending champion Crusaders on the Friday night. Following that on Saturday the Hurricanes get their season underway against the Blues. The chiefs stayed at home for the weekend on the bye.

HIGHLANDERS 13 – 26 CRUSADERS

Before the match had even begun, the competition started with a bang as the Highlanders produced a haka that had the crowd and players fired up for kick off!

The first real talking point of the match come very early on as the Highlanders were on the attack, breaking away from a maul was Jack Regan getting slapped in the face from Joe Moody! Remarkably only the existing penalty was called but an early precedence was set by the referee for contact to the head and I’m sure we will here a lot more on this topic as weeks go by.

Into the rugby on the field however, it was the Highlanders who were all over this match for most of the opening stanza but couldn’t get points onto the board and turned down a number of chances to take three, instead going for the corners.

In typical Crusaders fashion with their backs against the wall, they stuck over the try line first and second, just to add to the pain.

Codie Taylor grabbed the first try from a short Bryn Hall pass and he showed all his pace to allude the defence in his twenty meter scamper.

Wasn’t too long following the first try that the backs got into the action for the visitors. Sevu Reece had been a danger all night with his twinkling feet, but this time after breaking down the right he slipped in a banana kick back infield and find about five open Crusaders play and Bryn Hall was the lucky one to pick it up and score. So quickly it was 14-0.

The penalties inside their own half starting costing the Crusaders and finally the ref had no choice but to send someone to the bin and it was Ethan Blackadder who paid the price.

Things finally went right for the home team late in the half with a man advantage. It just took something special from a set piece, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u crashing off the back of the scrum took the Highlanders forward, for Aaron Smith to quickly switch it back on the scrums head to give the powerful Shannon Frizell a chance to crash over, which he took.

With half time begging, the home side finally roared into the game and it was the youngster starved of opportunities from injury who set this game alight. Connor Garden-Bachop sped down the right wing to score but the hands from Mitch Hunt created the chance for Jona Nareki to cut the defence to bits and set his young winger away and it was game on!

Despite the late surge, the Highlanders went into half time still trailing the Crusaders 14-10.

The Highlanders brought the game within one off the boot of Mitch Hunt early in the second half, but it was the Crusaders with Sevu Reece who struck himself with an outstanding finish in the right corner, diving through the tackle and reaching out the plant it down before going out.

The match became an arm wrestle for the next twenty minutes. The Highlanders with constant opportunities to put points on the board but the Crusader defence was solid as a rock. The dominant scrum was key for the visitor who were just happy to play the game out of their half and make the Highlander make the plays happen.

As usual, the Crusaders love the final ten minutes and that’s where they take yet another game away from their opponents. A penalty giving the Crusaders a lineout just a few out from the line, they turn the Highlanders lacking weapon against then. Driving the maul easily towards the line and over by Brodie McAlister to put an end to this contest with a thirteen point lead.

The Highlanders attacked the game again late to try regather any respectability but were a victim of errors and poor finishing against the strong Crusaders defence and just couldn’t add to their total.

Not the result for the home team but a promising start to their season with some good take away. Both sides were rusty and made many errors but the Crusaders produced a typical clinical display. Garden-Bachop and Nareki were the standouts for the Highlanders, which Codie Taylor and Sevu Reece has fantastic games for the Crusaders. Key difference, the Highlanders pack wasn’t at the game.

HURRICANES 16 vs 31 BLUES

Game two of the weekend saw a battle at the captial with the big city slickers from Auckland travelling down to Wellington to meet at the cake tin.

The game kicked off with a hiss and a roar as expected under a cracker of an evening. The Blues struck first, cleaning up some loose passing from the Hurricanes after soaking up a lot of pressure near their own line. Dalton Papali’i scooping up the mess for the opening points.

The Hurricanes hit straight back through Asafo Aumua who gets the credit, but it was all created a long way back. The Hurricanes turn into offloading champions for around halfway and make short work of the Blues defence to get onto the board.

The opening half was full of errors from both sides but it was the Hurricanes who paid the price for consecutive penalties inside their own twenty two with James Blackwell receiving the yellow card and continuing on an average night overall for the lock.

With the man advantage, the Blues were looking for only additions in fives or sevens and turned down at least six chances at posts for three points. Unrewarded, the Blues frustrations created opportunity for the Hurricanes who don’t need to be inside the opposition half to take shots at three, which is what Jordie Barrett does…. Twice! Both from around or over half way, incredible kicks.

Those last minute cracks at goal drastically changed the game at half time with the Hurricanes surprisingly leading 11-7 at the beak.

The Blues backrow started to get into the action in the second spell, scoring early in the half from a play that was all started by Akira Ioane breaking the tackle of Ardie Savea. The superb field position gave Otere Black the time to launch a cross field kick to an unmark and unopposed Caleb Clarke who had time to wait for the ball and dot down on the left edge.

It went even more downhill for the Hurricanes soon after when Du’Plessis Kirifi was sent to the bin just moments after arriving off the bench for ruck infringements and from the set piece scrum the Blues went off through fullback Stephen Perofeta.

The Hurricanes delivered a lifeline soon after despite being a man down. Long period of possession and constant phase attack saw Aardie Savea crash over the line only to be disallowed for being held up over the line. The boys from the captain didn’t give up there, from the proceeding lineout move Aumua sliced through the Blues defence like a highly skilled back to blow life back in this game.

Being just a one score game heading into the final ten minutes, that next big chance was crucial. It was the Blues who brought the finished, but very much against the run.

The Hurricanes were the team on attack, risking it all for the last chance at victory. But an error in a cross field kick that bobbled free allowed Reiko Ioane to pounce and let the legs do the talking. With all Hurricanes players up in the line attacking it was a footrace for Ioane and one he was well up for, cantering away to seal victory, but more importantly, he put the ball down correctly, diving on it, rather than his silly usual slap down placement! What a sight to see that finally was!

That was the final nail in the Hurricanes coffin with no time left, the Blues celebrating victory in round one. Dalton Papali’i was the Blues standout but the whole pack deserve the credit as they held a huge advantage over the Hurricanes. For the home side, Asafo Aumua was brilliant, Ardie Savea his usual classy self but sadly James Blackwell had a clear shocker this weekend.

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – ROUND ONE PREVIEW

Super Rugby Aotearoa is finally back! Two games spark the New Zealand based competition is action. It all kicks off on Friday evening when the Highlanders will start things off at home under the roof against their South Island rivals and defending champion Crusaders. On Saturday the Hurricanes will kick into the season against the Blues. The Chiefs will sit out round one on the bye. Shane was again a champion to come on and have his say again this season and you can catch that stream below and be sure to turn into the channel on Youtube on a Thursday afternoon to catch the stream each and every week! If you want a quick overview, check out below the video!

HIGHLANDERS vs CRUSADERS – Crusaders +4

Oh boy its a tough head against heart call in our season openers of Super Rugby Aotearoa! The Highlanders have built up a solid squad over the last few season. With the ability to have quality of starters off the bench will be key to a successful season for the southern men. The back row will be the key to not only this weekend but again the season. Frizell, former Crusaders Harmon and Mikaele-Tu’u start with Liam Squire making an impact off the bench. Mitch Hunt gets the nod at fly half over Josh Ioane who sits on the bench in the big surprise in the fifteen. Former Chief Solomon Alaimalo gets his first start as a Highlander wearing fifteen.

For the Crusaders, its much more straightforward. They miss David Havili in the side but the talent is still stacked. The area of concern that I expect the Highlanders will attack in that midfield channel with Dallas McLeod starting at inside center along side Jack Goodhue, but knowing how the Crusaders operate, he will adapt to the level quickly enough. But still expect Sio Tomkinson and Ngane Punivai to smash into those channels a number of times early on. The pack is its incredible self yet again with a number of All Blacks and led by Sam Whitelock. Its always hard to go against the Crusaders, even though my heard is firmly believing the Highlanders can get the job done.

HURRICANES vs BLUES – Hurricanes by 5

Now here is a game that could very simply swing either way, with one major factor that could decide it for both sides. Possession, simply put, is key. The Hurricanes boast a very agile, quick and mobile pack with Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea and Asafo Aumua to name just a few of the starters. They will want to run a game play that has the play quickly move around the park and demanding cleaners to get to rucks quickly to secure possession. They lack any quality or experience in the halves with Jonathan Taumateine and Jackson Garden-Bachop starting but if they can deliver some front foot running ball to those outside of them they could really be in with a chance. They have finishers aplenty with Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Billy Proctor, Ngani Laumape and the returning bus Julian Savea all in the lineup.

So we know how the Hurricanes should want to play, but the Blues will be dead against the happening. Hence why, possession is key. The Blues have a big bruising pack, Sotutu, Papali’i, Ioane, Tuipulotu and Laulala all in the mix but don’t offer the quickness around the park. They will want this tight and kept with the hard bruising running style those players bring. With three fly halves in the backline it will be expected they will kick the ball away a lot which I think will play into the Hurricanes hands with that back three. Otere Black, Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta are at ten, twelve and fifteen and all suffer from struggling at this level which could well be a selection issue the Blues live to regret… or enjoy. Home ground is a final tip to give the nod to the home team, but I’m expecting a close and exciting game of Super Rugby Aotearoa regardless of victor!

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

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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SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – Round Ten Review

Super Rugby Aotearoa came to a close this weekend with sadly only one match for the final round with the Blues vs Crusaders match cancelled due to the Auckland lockdown. We did however, get to see the Highlanders host the Hurricanes behind the closed doors of Forsyth Barr Stadium which was a entertaining fixture. Lets take a look at the weekends action……

HIGHLANDERS 38 vs 21 HURRICANES

It wasn’t to be the spectacle we were expecting the close out this fantastic tournament but hopefully it could do some justice to the final weekend, albeit sadly without fans in the stands.

The Highlanders had the better start to the match with a decent period of possession, but it was the Hurricanes who were the first to strike the scoreboard with one of their first touches of the ball. Jordie Barrett again to spark it out on the left wing, he is an expert in finding support and picking great passes. Jamie Booth was delivered the ball back toward to middle of the park and delayed the play enough for his support to catch up and eventually use the numbers out wide for Vince Aso to score on the right.

The Highlanders struck back very quickly after a run of penalties getting them deep in Hurricanes territory. Quickly recycled phases caught the Hurricanes defence short out wide and Mitch Hunt fooled the rushing defence to get in behind and gift and easy run in for replacement winger Ngane Punivai to tie it back up.

The Hurricanes have two tried disallowed for being in touch and a forward pass when the forward get a bit fancy. Third times a charm though as the Hurricanes attack from inside their own twenty two, Jackson Garden-Bachop draws and offloads to Peter Umaga-Jensen who once again has Booth on hand who uses his pace and step to beat the cover defence to score under the sticks.

As they have done all night, the Highlanders trike right back! Of course its how they have done it all season long. From the lineout just ten meters out its that usual play that has Ash Dixon smashing it off the back and planting down the instant reply! This really is a cracking contest of attack at all costs and disregard all else.

An entertaining first half that could have seen the Hurricanes up by a lot more. Its been a fun game, the players are out to have a blast where it all about entertainment. Tries only allowed, 14-14 at half time.

Josh Ioane is not interested in tries in the second half though, an early chance to take three off the tee and the lead is taken and just like that, things start to get serious….

The Highlanders are really stepping up the pace as they dominate the opening period of the second half. Michael Collins support lines finally paid off as a great offload from Jona Nareki set his free through the middle of the park. Add in a little bit of power to keep away the covering defence and the Highlanders extend their lead!

The Hurricanes get their third try of the afternoon disallowed from a lineout set piece for obstructing a defender as Chase Tiatia sliced straight through the defence all a little too easily. TMO being kept busy today.

The Highlanders are dominating the second half so far and go back to the lineout maul when gifted with another oppitunity. The Hurricanes mess up defending it terrible and not only watch Ash Dixon crash over but also lose Ardie Savea to the bin for coming in from the side and stopping the ball being placed down, a free seven pointer for the Highlanders who see their lead rocket up to 31-14 and a man advantage just before the hour mark.

Despite being a man down, the Hurricanes manage some possision down into the Highlanders territory and start to look dangerous. A loose carry puts an end to that which Aaron Smith picks up and releases Mitch Hunt from eighty meters out and he shows some burners like we have not seen from him before, to outpace the defence for the full length of the field to give a huge counter punch to extend the lead even more!

With fifteen men back on the field, the Hurricanes start to get back into the game. Working into good position on attack, they mix things up with a little grubber in behind the Highlanders defence. Mitch Hunt makes a hash of covering it in his in goal, it bobbles free for Peter Umaga-Jensen to clean up just before the line. Another Hurricanes seven, does that breath life back in the match at 38-21 with eight to play?

Its not to be for the Hurricanes! The Highlanders hold things much tighter for the final stanza of the match and claim themselves a quality 38-21 victory. Full of entertainment, tries, line breaks and excitement. A packed Forsyth Barr would have sounded spectacular, but sadly that wasn’t to be.

The home side were extremely impressive during the second half after a tight opening forty minutes. It was a great occasion for Ash Dixon in his 100th match and Aaron Smith who cracked up an extraordinary 150th Super Rugby cap with the Highlanders. They produced a strong squad game but their real strength for the first time this season came from the bench. Manaaki Selby-Rickit had his best game in a Highlanders shirt. Michael Collins looked solid in midfield and the team continuity was the best its been all season.

It was a festival type atmosphere from the Hurricanes who seemed to be out for a bit of fun to finish their season, score some tries and have a blast. Jordie Barrett was again a standout and Scott Scrafton is a glue to the Hurricanes pack but the real star was Jamie Booth. Booth and Finlay Christie at the Blues have been the best performing scrum halves in this competition and Booth for me has done enough to be a starting nine somewhere, I doubt at the Hurricanes but he needs to be playing first team rugby.

BLUES v CRUSADERS – CANCELLED

What could have been the greatest game of our Super Rugby Aotearoa season, has been torn away at the last minute thanks for COVID yet again. With Auckland back in lock down, this game was never going to go ahead.

Lets hope if anything, this fires the Blues on to better things next season, whatever format that may be, and to get themselves up to that Crusaders level. Lets hope so.

A no result draw was the ending of the season, but just imagine if the Highlanders had won last weekend and this was the decider and it couldn’t be played…. imagine that…. We wouldn’t hear the end of it…. The Crusaders the rightful champions of whats been the best season of Super Rugby in quite some time.

We can all agree though, this game would have been a ripper! Maybe in 2021, boy it better be an improvement of a year…

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and Thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – Round Nine Review

The title was on the line! While the Hurricanes still needed to pick up max points and along with the Blues, sweat on the result of the second match to go their way to keep the season alive. But first the Hurricanes needed to do their part of the task against the Chiefs to keep themselves in the race. Then the one everything was hanging on, the Crusaders hosting the Highlanders with the title potentially to be decided.

HURRICANES 31 vs 18 CHIEFS

The Chiefs season came to an end tonight on the road in the capital against the Hurricanes, who are looking to keep their extremely slim hopes of a title alive needing the bonus points win. There was a late change for the home side, with Vince Aso replacing Ngani Laumape at inside center.

It only took a couple of minutes to see our first opportunity of points from the tee to the Chiefs. Damien McKenzie having a crack from forty five meters back, but struck the crossbar to let the Hurricanes off early.

It didnt take the Hurricanes long when they did get some ball in hand, finding plenty of advancing space on the edges, Once inside the twenty two, it only took a couple of charges to bash over and it was the impressive Peter Umaga-Jensen who bashed through the one on one tackle to put the first points on the board.

Its a cracking game, full of attacking intent at a very high pace with very few stoppages. Most of the play is under advantage as both sides were spilling the ball pushing the tempo even higher. The Chiefs did jump onto the scoreboard through the boot of McKenzie shortly after the midway point of the half.

Sam Cane took what initially looked like another massive injury after being decked trying to tackle Jordie Barrett after taking down a high ball. Thankfully for Cane, after some time with the medics, was able to walk himself off the field. Another sad end for Sam Canes Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

As soon as the Chiefs got on the board, the Hurricanes snapped back with another try. From the set piece scrum, they launched wide to the left edge. Umaga-Jensen again getting on the outside shoulder of the defence and putting Wes Goosen away down the sidelines. Goosen draws the fullback McKenzie in and offloads right on the edge of the chalk back to Umaga-Jensen who has two in the night already. The ball falls from the tee as Barrett was coming in for the conversion, he snaps a drop kick from the sideline which just slides to the left. He cant do too much wrong….

Kobus van Wyk has a little bit of fun trying to throw Brad Weber as far as he can like some dirty laundry, unfortunately for him, the referee found it illegal and sent him to the bin for ten minutes…..

That was about the last of the fun for the first half, as the two sides head for a breather with the scoreline at 12-3 to the Hurricanes.

With the player advantage, the Chiefs fight back into the game with their first try of the match. Carefully drawing defenders in through the backline to leave that overlap on the outside for Sean Wainui to sneak over in the corner and bring the Chiefs back in the game, just two points behind.

The Hurricanes took over for the next ten minutes, grabbing two quick tries that seemed like it would shut the door on the Chiefs season. Firstly it was Dane Coles who went over in the left corner in typical Coles fashion. Just using his outside runner as a decoy and using his pace to get on the outside and power the carry him over.

It was a flurry of points of McKenzie tried to break the domination of the Hurricanes by putting over a penalty, but it had very little effect.

Then as quickly as they got back to half way, the Hurricanes were back at it again. This time it was a horrid defensive setup by the Chiefs that was read superbly by Jackson Garden-Bachop, who chips the ball across the field to a wide open Korbus Van Wyk who had time to sign some autographs before the defence arrived and still dot down in the corner and push the lead out to 24-13.

A good run of penalties for the Chiefs gets them in another good position to strike. They look to the forwards to drive it from the lineout and after a couple of attempts, manage to smash over through Mitch Karpik, with Brad Slater close behind. It tightens up again, 24-18, Chiefs just six behind.

Its a see-sawing second half in this one, but its the Hurricanes who just keep hitting back in response to every Chiefs attack. Jamie Booth had a massive impact off the bench, adding his usual spark into the backline. He combined with his fellow substitute Billy Proctor to grab what ended up being the final blow to the Chiefs. Booth had made a number of half breaks since coming on the field and added the offload to finish the job for the Canes.

It was a game the Hurricanes lead from start to finish and seemed to have an answer for everything the Chiefs threw at them. They had a real number of standouts in this match but to be fair and just nail down a couple, Peter Umaga-Jensen in the backs again was outstanding and those back three have been superb since Jordie Barretts return. Scott Scrafton has been the sort of players Hurricanes sides have often lacked, he was strong again in the pack along with Du’Plessis Kirifi who just gets better and better.

Well, a winless season for the Chiefs, its difficult to be positive for the team. They don’t back down to throwing it all out there but just lack that ability to find the victory. The biggest problem is the lack of form for the key players like Damien McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown. Samisoni Taukei’aho has been wayward this season but was a solid performer for the Chiefs. Youngsters like Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Ollie Norris look good at this level and give some bright lights for the Chiefs, but all in all, results are the final say and they were far from the side of the Chiefs this season.

CRUSADERS 32 vs HIGHLANDERS 22

This was the game everyone was waiting for this weekend. Was going to depend massively if they Highlanders could turn up to the the party and last the full eighty minutes against the machine that is the Crusaders.

It all started with off with a massive roar for the visitors, blasting over the ball in the ruck for an early turnover. Aaron Smith was always going to be a massive key for the Highlanders and his two touches after the turnover were key. First short side to Josh McKay and then picking a perfect line to find the charging Shannon Frizell to smash over the line with just two minutes on the clock.

It took a bit of time to the Crusaders to get themselves into the game after the early Highlanders domination from the whistle, but they did find their rhythm. Fast recycled ball and numbers on the short side, the Crusaders just need one little spark and they create some of the greatest tries in the competition. Sevu Reece burns down the sideline and with all the support in the world they draw the cover defenders and find the open Richie Mo’unga to score. The Crusaders have woken.

This match was being played at a rocket tempo with the most ridiculous style of play but the Highlanders were here to compete and committed to taking any points on offer as Josh Ioane took the first penalty attempt at goal to nudge the Highlanders in front.

Hold on to your hats folks! This one was hot! Jona Nareki had been caught out defensively a couple of times but this time his turning in worked in their favour. Sam Whitelock’s little tap on pass was intercepted by Nareki who put on the burners and created a footrace with Sevu Reece as the two Fijians went racing to the corner but Nareki had just enough to get it down in the corner and Highlanders cashed in again. Ioane nailed the sideline conversion, tapping the left hand upright on its way past for a 17-7 lead.

The Highlanders forced some respect from the Crusaders, taking shots at the posts from penalties instead of looking for the five and Mo’unga doesn’t miss many, grabbing two late shots at goal to bring the Crusaders within four at the half time break. A cracking forty minutes and surprisingly a Highlanders lead!

Five minutes in to the second half, it looked like the Crusaders were about to score another scorching try from inside their own half but take a look at this highlight if you get the chance. Bryn Hall looked in for all money from about twenty out but do not deny the reactions of Josh McKay who produced the try saver of the decade! Coming from nowhere to tackle Hall from behind and slap the ball out of his grasp for a knock on and a denied try! Unbelievable!

The Highlanders are making a match of this one to the joy of the Hurricanes and the Blues! Playing a determined, stubborn and structure gameplan that’s actually coming off so far. Josh Ioane has been making many little breaks through the Crusaders defence and get the front foot ball for the Highlanders who get just five out from the line. Some quick ball again and Michael Collins crashes through Will Jordan and Sevu Reece to dot down again for the visitors who extend the lead to nine points.

The clock ticked over the hour mark and we all know what that means for the Crusaders, its go time. Within a couple of minutes and some poor Highlanders decision making, the Crusaders had some good attacking ball. Mo’unga swept aside the defence and created a numbers game for the Crusaders who are extremely good at taking advantage of these situations. Through the hands, Jack Goodhue, Will Jordan and for the finish George Bridge.

Its just ridiculous, this Crusaders side. Right off the kickoff, the offload of the decade from Luke Romano to Mo’unga who shows that rapid acceleration and the numbers take their toll again. It’s Will Jordan and George Bridge once more and the combination turns this game on its head. Crusaders now lead by three.

Things go from bad to worse for the Highlanders, as in the buildup to that try, Sio Tomkinson flattened Oli Jager off the ball and was sent to the bin for ten minutes. Bad positioning from Tomkinson and was never in the right place to avoid the hit and the place of the hit made it much much worse.

The Highlanders have matched the level again following the slow down from the Jager injury but with the game winding down into the final few minutes, the final nail was struck. A number of penalties inside the Highlanders half has the Crusaders right on attack. Of course with the yellow card man still missing in midfield, the Crusaders strike right in that spot. Braydon Ennor finding all the space to mark his return with what will turn out to be the match winner.

The Highlanders toil at the Crusaders for the last few minutes but cannot find their way back into the game and the professional Crusaders just do whats required to get the job done and crown themselves Super Rugby Aotearoa champions with a week still to play. The dream of the season decider at Eden Park, just wasn’t to be….

Both sides had a stack of players who performed fantastically! I’ll keep it short and sweet for this or I will name the whole teams! For the Crusaders Richie Mounga was an absolute standout again! Hes had a spectacular season and has become a real leader of how this team operates. Codie Taylor was near unstoppable at times as well. He carried well and picked his offloading decision very well.

Its a similar story for the Highlanders, Josh Ioane had a fantastic game for the Highlanders. Really is stepping up with his creation and running game and works well with Mitch Hunt. If anything, the Highlanders decision making at times let them down, poor exits with little chips and those risky 50/50 plays that often dont pay off when you play a side like the Crusaders. In the pack, in this game and the whole season, its hard to go past Ash Dixon. A real leader in all areas on this team and considering how little the Highlanders used the maul, he will still the most prominent forward in the pack. Shannon Frizell was also a standout, this has been his best season for years.

Great game all around, a real spectacle to watch.

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and Thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – Round Nine Preview

Just two rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa remain and this weekend we could potentially see our seasons champion crowned if results go the way of the Crusaders. The Blues are Hurricanes will be hoping they can keep things alive for another week. Saturday night opens up with the high flying Hurricanes back at home taking on the poor winless Chiefs. On Sunday is the South Island Derby between the Crusaders and the Highlanders in the game that could decide if the final round is needed for a victor. The Blues have the weekend off and will hope they have something to fight the Crusaders for in the final round clash at Eden Park. Lets take a look at the weekends action…..

HURRICANES vs CHIEFS – Sky Stadium

The Hurricanes have taken Super Rugby Aotearoa by storm in the last few weeks and have become real contenders as we reach the final couple of weeks. They need a big win this weekend and a favour from the Highlanders in the south to keep their hopes and dreams alive and then rest fate with the Blues the week after, a tall ask.

The turnaround of the Hurricanes season has been brilliant since the return of Jordie Barrett and again his presence is going to be vital. They currently sit on sixteen points and third on the table, six behind the Blues and eight behind the Crusaders, if only they didn’t have such a poor start to their season.

One week at a time for the Hurricanes though, but to win at home against the Chiefs should be a very achievable task. Each week that goes by sinks the Chiefs deeper and deeper into their own misery. The woes or Warren Gatland just keep growing, it makes next season when hes away from the Chiefs an extremely interesting prospect if they can not pick up a win this season.

There is a lot to look forward to in this opener, the Chiefs as you expect will go in again with a nothing to lose attitude which is always a danger. The back row battle is one I will be keeping a keen eye on, Lachlan Boshier has been at a new level in recent weeks and his battle with Du’Plessis Kirifi and Ardie Savea will be determine how much possession the Chiefs can maintain.

With all the talk over the All Blacks midfield options, this could be a little taster of whats on offer towards the black jersey. Ngani Laumape has stood up again, particularly against the Blues, but now lining up against a player like Anton Lienert-Brown, this is a real test of the two players. Are they fighting over the same thirteen black jumper? This could go a long way to settle the debate, Laumape needs consistency which hes lacked and hes only got two more weeks to prove it, where as Anton Lienert-Brown has been a standout since moving back out to thirteen for the Chiefs.

RESULT – Hurricanes by 9

CRUSADERS vs HIGHLANDERS – Orangetheory Stadium

Well, this is it. We could crown the first, and possibly only, Super Rugby Aotearoa crown this weekend. A victory will give them a unobtainable six point lead over the second placed Blues, who only have one match remaining after the bye this weekend. That’s what this match is all about, the Highlanders season is cashed in but don’t for a second think they will lay down in this match.

We know all to well what to expect from this Crusaders outfit, we have seen it all season yet only the Hurricanes have shown with the smallest of margins, how to beat it. Committed, eighty minutes, let no chances pass you by, rugby. When it comes to that final fifteen to twenty minutes, that’s when the real step up comes for their opponents. Richie Mo’unga has shown week on week just how he lifts the side during that period.

I can sit here talking about how the Crusaders will play, but that’s not what will decide this game. How do the Highlanders beat it!?

I think they had the game plan working pretty well for the most part against the Blues last weekend. They accumulated points well when on offer from the tee, but struggled massively to defend those points often quickly conceding after scoring some. That must be cut out this weekend.

The second part its a little harsh but the Highlanders dominated the second half against the Blues and spent nearly half an hour inside their twenty two to only score right at the bitter end of the half. Much like the Blues, the Crusaders will be happy to defend on a lead and give the “bring it” to the Highlanders attack to try get through.

The Crusaders are always happy to take a penalty on the chin as opposed to conceding the try, decision making has to be on to make the right call on when to take points and when to plug the corners and use that dangerous maul to good effect.

The maul is a tasty option, but the scrum is something they may want to stay well away from once again.

In a nutshell for the Highlanders, play the game of your life, never let your standard slip and hope the Crusaders have an off day… Is that too much to ask?!

RESULT – Crusaders by 6

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA – Round Eight Review

Eight rounds into the competition and results are having a huge effect on who may well be champion in a couple more weeks time. The top contenders, the Crusaders were in action first against the winless Chiefs on Saturday night. Then in our Sunday afternoon game, the chasing contenders, the Blues travelled down to inside the roof to take on the Highlanders. The big upsetting Hurricanes were out this week on the bye. Lets take a look at how the weekend went…..

CHIEFS 19 vs 32 CRUSADERS

Its the final home game of the season for the Chiefs, still trying to get that opening victory. It also marked a massive night for one player on each side of the field, 100 caps for Aaron Cruden and 150 caps for Sam Whitelock. Before we get into the game, a deserved moment for both of these players who have been huge parts of New Zealand rugby over a number of years.

Its highlight reel stuff after just a few minutes as some fantastic quick hands down the left edge finds the new Crusaders number eight Tom Sanders with more open clear grass in front of him than hes seen before and if you enjoy a big man thundering around the park, watch this try. An awesome forty meter gallop and a fair squishing of Damien McKenzie at the back to go over the line. He had one speed, full speed! What a sight!

The Crusaders look like a team out to prove a point. As the minutes pass, the domination grows. Offloads coming thick and fast and raking off meters like defenders don’t exist. Cleaning rucks with great efficiency and once within a few meters from the line they are too hard to stop. Will Jordan grabbing one of his easiest tries against a Chiefs defence that was struggling to hold on for a few phases and eventually broke down. Ominous signs early on at 12-0 after fifteen minutes.

The Chiefs fought their way back via Lachlan Boshier who continues on his strong season. Penalties started to allow the Chiefs some territory finally and launch from a scrum in center field just five meters from the Crusaders line. Pita-Gus Sowakula runs it strongly off the back and draws plenty of attention, popping the ball up from the ensuing ruck for Boshier to crash over, first points on the board and back in the game.

The momentum is now firmly with the Chiefs who are profiting off plenty of Crusader foul play. McKenzie stepping up again to slot a penalty from where he earlier missed, to bring the Chiefs within two points of the lead just before the half hour mark.

Just one minute before half time the game takes a huge twist towards the visitors. With a big overlap Shaun Stevenson slaps down a pass and gets marched for ten minutes for his troubles. With a man advantage in the backline, the Crusaders make a statement in the pack. Driving the maul from fifteen meters out, all the way to the line with Codie Taylor fully in control all the way to have the final say of the half. The conversion is astray but the Crusaders lead is up to seven at the break, 17-10.

Boshier got his Chiefs off to the best possible start, gifting his side an early ruck penalty almost straight off the kick off. With Stevenson still sitting in the naughty chair, McKenzie slots another shot at goal to cut the lead back some more.

Ten minutes on and McKenzie does it again after Stevenson makes an impact straight back from the yellow card period and the Crusaders, more than happy to give away three as opposed to five. Richie Mo’unga strikes instantly back with three of his own as this game continues to go end to end.

Its becoming a battle off the tee in the second half between McKenzie and Mo’unga as another three is added by the Chiefs and the lead flicks around.

The old rugby cliche of playing to the whistle was in full effect as the Crusader score what was instantly criticised by fans and critics alike, but the referee and his friends found this one to be okay. Quinten Strange did the action in question, carrying for the Crusaders inside the Chiefs twenty two, appeared to knock the ball on and left it behind him, Sevu Reece backing up grabs it, jumps over the tackle and dots down and throws it away expecting the knock on call. It never came and the TMO agreed it was knocked back. The call will be argued night and day for a week at least, rightly or wrongly, but credit Reece who played to the whistle and got the reward.

Things went from bad to worse for the Chiefs who dropped their guard following the frustrating call from the last try. Richie Mo’unga once again leading the Crusaders list in the last twenty minutes as he sparks his backs out on the left edge and on the overlap Leicester Fainga’anuku who steps back inside McKenzie to rub salt into the Chiefs wounds. The lead splashes out quickly to thirteen points with a 19-32 lead.

The Crusaders with a lead in the final stages of the game are clinical finishers and they executed perfectly tonight, closing the game out well with a bonus point victory.

The Chiefs had plenty of moments to shine and will be again wondering about those 50/50 decision and not being good enough to keep them out of the deciding factor. Lachlan Boshier was once again a pivotal factor again for the Chiefs. Aaron Cruden in his 100th was always testing. Pita-Gus Sowakula also had a strong showing.

The Crusaders were back to that irresistible force this weekend. Codie Taylor had a cracking game around the park and the much criticised back row exceeded most expectations with a strong display. The other standouts were the usual’s, its hard to not credit the work rate of guys like Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan. George Bridge was impactful also.

HIGHLANDERS 21 vs 32 BLUES

Sunday afternoon rugby was under the roof this week as the Highlanders returned from the bye at home.

But it was the Blues who started with a roar off their lineout drive, but Aaron Smiths lucky bright orange boots denied the Blues first attempt at the line within the first few minutes.

The danger never went away though and after a couple of disjointed scrums, number eight Akira Ioane blasts off the back and straight over the top of Scott Gregory to plant to opening try, which Beauden Barrett failed to convert.

Loose possession cost the Highlanders dearly as within one phase of losing the ball, Barrett hit a cross field kick to Caleb Clarke, who bumps off Josh Ioane, offloads to Rieko Ioane, then to Finlay Christie who has a clean scamper to grab the second try for the Blues and very quickly take control of the game.

The Blues defensive line starts to get them in trouble as the Highlanders get themselves on the scoreboard through the boot of Ioane and the quickly after with more penalties go for the corner instead. Almost like watching the Brumbies, you know the Highlanders will have a crack at the lineout maul and they do it with form once again to very quickly put ten points on the board and be back in the game.

The Blues think they have their third try before the referee drags it all the way back eighty meters the other way. Aaron Smith trips on the offside Karl Tu’inukuafe who is laying on the floor, causing him to lose the ball and it ends up being intercepted for a clean run away for Dalton Papalii. The end result, a penalty for the Highlanders back where Smith was tripped and Ioane takes up the offer of three points to put the Highlanders in the lead, in a double play against the momentum.

The Blues take no time at all to hit back. Straight off the kick off, Ofa Tu’ungafasi steals the ball back and Clarkes powerful running punches the Blues through the defence and finds Christie and finally TJ Faiane to finish for the Blues to put them back in the lead again. Barretts goalkicking is becoming a bit of a concern though, another miss from a handy position.

The Highlanders are happy to keep the scoreboard ticking over through the boot of Ioane once again as the half winds down to its final minutes.

The Highlanders struggle to clear their own half with just a couple of minutes remaining and again seem unable to stop sides hitting straight back after scoring themselves. Offside penalties allow the Blues for one final push to another try before ending the half and they set their sights on their dominating scrum to do that job. It does exactly that, just a couple of carries off the back and they secure the ultimate time to score. Ofa Tu’ungafasi powers over to extend the Blues led to eight points at half time, 24-16.

It takes just minutes for the Blues to crack back into the game. A great kick chase started it all off from their own half, creating an turnover as soon as it landed. Barrett launches the ball wide with a fantastic pass and the offloading game begins. Tony Lamborn gallops a few meters, flicks it in to Faiane, then off to Christie who grabs his second try of the night in a polished performance.

Striking difference in the sides attack tonight, the Highlanders are struggling to get forward momentum with passes behind the players, off their running lines and generally unstructured. The Blues on the other hand, look much more polished.

The Highlanders defence does actually gets some structure for a while as the Blues grab a number of penalties close to the line but cant manage to get over. In what must be considered a minor victory, the Blues finally decide to take the three instead from right in front.

If I am going to credit that little period of the Highlanders defence then I have give plenty to the Blues for the next and final twenty of the match. Stuck inside their own half and often their own twenty two, the Blues repel attack after attack from the Highlanders. The Blues do what they must, giving away a stack of penalties, offsides, high tackles, tackles without the ball, you name it, they committed it to stop the Highlanders at any cost! It did eventually result in a yellow card for Sione Mafileo, but the luck hasn’t been on the Highlanders side at all but the Blues mostly got away with it. Its baffling how more weren’t sent to the bin and sooner….

The pressure does finally tell for the Highlanders who had dominated the last stanza of this match. With just five minutes remaining its the big man Shannon Frizell who powers over on the left side to give a little hope for the home team, but ultimately it was that long period to grab that try that will cost them.

An entertaining and spirited finish by the Highlanders was not enough to get back into the game and the Blues play the win at all costs style to get the job done in the end. Its a shame the Highlanders just cant get that game plan into action before the second half, otherwise a lot of these results could be a lot different.

The home town side has little in the way of standouts early on but as the game progressed plenty of guys stood up to the task. Shannon Frizell was class again and Josh Ioane looked right back at home for his first match back in the starting lineup. The concern is where and how they get the best out of these versatile guys like Michael Collins who was a little off colour in midfield.

The Blues can be a joy to behold when they get their game going but are still far from a ruthless team. Their captain Patrick Tuipulotu has become a real star this season and is performing week in and week out. Caleb Clarke made plenty of strong runs on the wing but it was a fantastic display from Akira Ioane who just loves a nice dry pitch to rip into. Hes a dry weather man who would be well suited to swap shirts.

Previews and reviews are right here Behind The Posts for each and every round of Super Rugby Aotearoa! Rugby is back! Let me know your thoughts on the action this weekend in the comments and Thanks for stopping by Behind The Posts. If you would like to have your say here, get in touch on the contact page today!

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.