Bulk of Highlanders squad locked in

Ben Smith will be back for the Highlanders. Photo Getty
Ben Smith will be back for the Highlanders. Photo Getty
Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger will name his first squad today with questions over outside backs and a third first five-eighth.

Malakai Fekitoa
Malakai Fekitoa

Mauger, who has taken over from Tony Brown, has the luxury of having the bulk of the squad locked in for the 2018 season even before he started his role.

Ben and Aaron Smith, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, Liam Coltman, Luke Whitelock and Ash Dixon have all signed deals which will have them at the franchise next year.

There are just under 30 players returning from last season which is the sort of continuity any team wants.

With most of the core of the side coming back there are only a few gaps in the squad, which is expected to number 38 players.

As per usual with any season, players have come and gone with the biggest departure being former All Black centre Malakai Fekitoa, who has headed to France to play for Toulon.

Fekitoa is yet to turn out for his new club having only arrived in France last week.

The Highlanders are unlikely to sign a big name to replace Fekitoa, who played every game for the Highlanders last year.

Marty Banks
Marty Banks
The side will look within to the likes of Richard Buckman, Sio Tomkinson, Matt Faddes and Thomas Umaga-Jensen to fill the gap left with the departure of the big Tongan.

Further out, winger Patrick Osborne has moved to Japan. He had limited game time last year with Tevita Li getting more minutes but there will be a need for another winger.

Closer to the scrum, the departure of Marty Banks opens up a position.

Banks was not initially in the team last season as he was set to head to Italy. But he stayed home because of personal reasons and when Hayden Parker went down with a knee injury, Banks was called up and had a great year for the franchise.

But he is now in Italy and the Highlanders will look for a first five-eighth behind Sopoaga and Fletcher Smith.

There was a thought the franchise would have Mike Delany back for a third time but the Bay of Plenty veteran has headed to the Crusaders.

The franchise has secured Otago first five-eighth Josh Ioane but he is seen as a utility player.

Parker played some minutes for Otago but needs to get some time on the field after a shocking injury run.

There was a suggestion former Blues and Hurricanes pivot Jimmy Gopperth was a possibility but he is still playing for Wasps in England. Jade Te Rure, a former New Zealand Colt, has returned to New Zealand after a spell with Edinburgh. He played well enough for Manawatu but has never played at this level and it may be something of a punt to get him down here.

In the forward pack, the Highlanders have already signed big prop Tyrell Lomax. He was supposed to join the side in 2019 but was granted an early release from bosses in Australia and will join the Highlanders for 2018.

Joe Wheeler is concentrating on his career in Japan but in Jackson Hemopo and Josh Dickson the franchise has two ready replacements in the second row.

Former co-captain flanker Shane Christie has not played any rugby this year and is unlikely to be named.


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