Highlanders need strong start

Lima Spooaga will again be a key man for the Highlanders this season. Photo: ODT files
Lima Spooaga will again be a key man for the Highlanders this season. Photo: ODT files
Super Rugby is not a sprint. Nor is it a marathon. It is more of a 400m race. 

You have to keep up a solid pace and be on the money when the heat goes on.

Unfortunately, the Highlanders were too slow out of the blocks last year. They dropped three of their first four games and, from then, were always trailing the pacesetters.

And when the heat came on - actually it was freezing rain in a drowned Christchurch - the side came up short in the quarterfinal against the Crusaders.

So a good start is needed for the men from the South. Then the side has to be handy right throughout. And when the pressure comes - the playoffs - the Highlanders have to raise the bar.

They have the firepower to go a long way. The team has some world-class players in key areas.

Some people dribble on about spines in teams - well more in the 13-man game - but the Highlanders do have immense quality in positions that matter.

The two Smiths, Lima Sopoaga, Luke Whitelock and Liam Squire. Pace out wide.

A front row which is improving and has added depth. There is some talent there.

The front row stocks have been boosted by the inclusion of big prop Tyrel Lomax while Ash Dixon is back to full fitness.

Lock Jackson Hemopo played well at the back end of last season and was also a standout for Manawatu. He will be up for a big season.

There is plenty of quality in the loose forwards in a case of who to leave out.

The backs are strong although there are some question marks if injuries arrive. And they will.

The major losses are Marty Banks and Malakai Fekitoa.

Banks was a reliable kicker who had that stamp of class about him. Fekitoa was a brutal defender although his attacking game could have been better.

But departures are part of rugby these days. Players come and go and have to be replaced.

Thomas Umaga-Jensen's injury-enforced absence, which is likely to be for the season, could hurt more than many imagine. He is a big bruiser who could have had an impact in this competition.

Simply, the Highlanders just need to play well, get off to a top start and then win at least half of the games against New Zealand sides.

The side has not had the greatest of draws. Two byes early on mean it then has eight games in eight weeks.

New coach Aaron Mauger has not tinkered much. With 30 players coming back from last year, it is a case of same cart, different driver.

Mauger will not veer too much from what has worked in the past. The Highlanders as a side have kicked the ball a lot and played a territory game.

They may perhaps pare that back a bit and keep the ball in hand. New law interpretations make possession king.

But under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the game is quick so the Highlanders will look to move the ball around.

Whether that is enough to be a contender time will tell. The clock is now ticking.


Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Tei Walden, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (co-captain), Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Aki Seiuli, Tyrel Lomax, Dan Pryor, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Fletcher Smith.

Blues:  Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Bryn Gatland, Augustine Pulu (captain), Akira Ioane, Murphy Taramai, Glenn Preston, Scott Scrafton, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Ofa Tuungafasi, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Leni Apisai, Pauliasi Manu, Michael Tamoaieta, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sione Havili or Antonio Kiri Kiri, Jonathan Ruru, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Melani Nanai. 


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