How the Highlanders will fare in 2025

Timoci Tavatavanawai (left), had a lively season on the wing for the Highlanders.  PHOTO: JOE...
Timoci Tavatavanawai (left), had a lively season on the wing for the Highlanders. PHOTO: JOE ALLISON/GETTY IMAGES
In 2025, it will be 10 years since the Highlanders won their sole Super Rugby title. But will it ever happen again? And did the 2024 performance of the Highlanders show some promise or just another sub-par season which has become the norm for the southern franchise. Steve Hepburn takes a look.

From a Southland point of view it will get better from next year — Southland book end Ethan de Groot is likely to be the fulltime captain of the Highlanders.

De Groot, the only current All Black in the side, is short odds on being the skipper as he captained the side in a few games this year when usual skipper Billy Harmon had a rest or was out injured.

The loosehead prop should slot into the captaincy role easily and one of his lieutenants will be another Southlander with loose forward Sean Withy likely to be one of the men backing up de Groot.

But having a good skipper can only go so far.

Quality, top-line players are the difference between the first and top of the table. Players who make the right decisions when under pressure. Guys who are big, strong, and never give an inch to the opposition.

The 2015 title victory was based on the two Smiths — Aaron and Ben. They were at the peak of their powers. Two of the top five players in the competition. Now would the Highlanders have one player in the top 20, or even top 40 of all players?

That is what the Highlanders have to do to get better. Getting better to get into the top four and match it with the best New Zealand sides.

Simply, they have to improve the players they have into top liners or get some who are.

But herein lies the problem. Rugby players are not cars. You cannot just put in a new motor or set of brakes to improve, or put in better fuel to make them go faster. Well you can, but it is illegal.

The Highlanders could go shopping for a few new players but the landscape is changing. Good players no longer grow on trees in New Zealand. Anyone who is any good is snapped up by their home union and franchise and only a few escape.

There were some greenshoots in the 2024 season which started well, then went off the boil before coming back right at the end.

The set piece was solid, the scrum in particular, standing firm in most games. Prop Jermaine Ainsley will be a loss, heading to France. The second row was solid and lock Fabian Holland came back to near top form.

Withy and Harmon and the loose forwards tried hard but were outmuscled in too many games.

Halfback Folau Fakatava was at his best when he is allowed to play and is not the same player when trying to display a controlled game.

The midfield was solid but did not break open too many games while the outside backs when they got space made the most of it.

Wingers Timoci Tavatavenawai and Jona Nareki looked lively and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens at fullback was consistently good.

Head coach Clarke Dermody is likely to be back again next year and he will look for better.

Players will leave and others will arrive.

Hopefully not many good will depart and plenty with good will be welcomed.