Highlanders’ task doesn’t seem that hard

Highlanders fans hope Timoci Tavatavanawai will see plenty of ball this season. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Highlanders fans hope Timoci Tavatavanawai will see plenty of ball this season. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Here we go again. Super Rugby resumes tonight with lots of questions over public interest, the future of both the Melbourne Rebels and Moana Pasifika, and which team will do us all a favour and beat the Crusaders. 
Mainly, there are questions about the Highlanders, and Hayden Meikle  is here to ask and answer them.


1. Where will they finish?

The experts (well, me) are saying seventh. Two places higher than last year even though Aaron Smith has gone? Brave call. But there has not been a lot to separate teams between sixth and 11th in Super Rugby in the past two years — the Highlanders, for example, finished ninth in 2023 but would have been sixth with three more points — and I see that trend continuing. The Highlanders probably need to win six of their 14 games to make the playoffs. That just doesn’t seem that onerous.


2. What are the crucial games?

For the Highlanders, it’s all about winning the games they MUST win, and perhaps picking up one or two more wins.

These shape as critical games:

— v Hurricanes (home), March 30. The Highlanders’ losing streak against New Zealand teams is at 16. That is a dreadful run, and it must end at Easter, if not earlier.

— v Reds (away), April 19. The second leg of the second trip to Australia. Beat the Rebels a week earlier, and the Highlanders should be confident.

— v Moana Pasifika (away), May 4. Moana Pasifika will be a lot tougher in Tonga.

— v Fijian Drua (home), May 26. Every chance this will be the game that seals a playoff spot ... or not.


3. How much will Aaron Smith be missed?

Lots, obviously. He was a class act, and the heartbeat of the side. But nobody can play forever. The Highlanders have some solid leadership in the form of Billy Harmon, Sam Gilbert, Rhys Patchell and Ethan de Groot. And it is not like the halfback cupboard is bare. Folau Fakatava is a wondrous talent who finally gets a chance to be a regular starter. And don’t sleep on Nathan Hastie. He is a different player but has serious talent.


4. Sam Gilbert at No 12?

A positive move. The Highlanders desperately needed some midfield stability. Gilbert, who arguably lacks the top-end pace at fullback, has become the Mr Reliable in the backline, and is much respected by his peers. The big hope is that the relatively unknown Tanielu Tele’a shines one place outside him.


5. Which new boys will shine?

Tele’a could be a welcome addition, and Hastie, hookers Henry Bell and Jack Taylor, loose forward Oliver Haig and first five Ajay Faleafaga will be watched with interest. But it’s really all about Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens. They bring genuine game-breaking ability to join Jona Nareki in the back three. Fingers crossed they get plenty of clean ball.


6.Can they score tries?

Timoci? Jacob? Jona? Hugh Renton? Help us out here. The Highlanders’ attack sputtered badly in 2023. Their 48 tries were second worst in the competition, and their 64 clean breaks were last. Those numbers need to change. A much-altered backline will be trying new things under innovative attack coach Kenny Lynn, so cross your fingers.