Solid performers, promising players in rebuilding phase

Highlanders player Timoci Tavatavanawai charges forward during the Super Rugby Pacific preseason...
Highlanders player Timoci Tavatavanawai charges forward during the Super Rugby Pacific preseason match between the Highlanders and Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on February 10. PHOTO: JOE ALLISON/GETTY IMAGES
In some ways the Highlanders have little or no pressure on them.

The side has been stripped of much of its experience in the past few years.

It is hard to believe in 2019 — just five seasons ago — the side had nearly a dozen All Blacks or All Blacks-to-be in the squad.

In 2024, there is prop Ethan de Groot and halfback Folau Fakatava — and then?

A bunch of solid performers, some promising players and a few holes.

Hooker, lock and midfield are all worries and if the side racks up a list of injuries, it will be in trouble.

But we all know that.

It is a rebuilding year — years perhaps — as the side looks to do the best it can do with what it has got.

So expectations are not sky high.

In some ways that is good. Nothing much is expected from the side so any run of wins will be a bonus.

But — and this is a big but — this is New Zealand rugby with demanding, and mostly, knowledgeable fans.

Teams can lose. But lose badly, by doing dumb things and displaying a lack of basic skills, things can get ugly. No matter how hard a side tries.

Much has been made of the promising players coming through.

But it is light years from running over Zingari-Richmond or Midlands to taking on the Blues or Chiefs, stacked with All Blacks and playing right on the edge.

Some of the promising talent will perform, some will not. That is what you get with promising players.

The Highlanders will want some players to grow.

The forward pack will be strong enough to compete and the front row looks solid with a big season expected out of the departing Jermaine Ainsley.

The train may have left the station for lock Pari Pari Parkinson but the big man just needs to get on the park and stay there. Young lock Fabian Holland will want to become a fixture on the team sheet.

The loose forwards have some talent and will not lie down.

Welshman Rhys Patchell will be important at first five-eighth and has shown some initial promise.

There are some big bodies in the midfield but it all comes back to their ability to unlock chances for the guys outside them.

Jona Nareki, Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens are all quality finishers but need the ball in their hands often.

That has happened in preseason but preseason games — and their results — are basically irrelevant.

The reality in a 12-team competition, with eight sides making the playoffs, it is not overly difficult to make the post-season.

Making that will be, say, five or six wins from 14 games but the biggest issue for the Highlanders is an ability — or inability — to beat NZ sides.

The team has not done that since 2021 and it is a worrying trend.

But get a win or two against their fellow countrymen and everyone will be smiling.