Landers aiming to play in fine style

Folau Fakatava runs to score a try during the Super Rugby Pacific preseason match between the...
Folau Fakatava runs to score a try during the Super Rugby Pacific preseason match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders in Methven on February 16. Photo: Getty Images
Let them entertain us.

A fresh Highlanders era begins tonight, and that always brings with it equal dashes of hope and expectation.

The expectation is that they will do everything possible to make this year better than the last; the hope is that they will do so with some style, and will give their supporters something to cheer about.

The Highlanders have not, to be slightly harsh but completely fair, been box-office gold for a couple of years.

They were particularly flat last season, struggling to score tries and lacking much in the way of spark and real enterprise. And is that not what the people want? If not a winning team, at least one that generates some excitement?

Results are paramount. Winning is always the aim. But these new-look Highlanders, who begin their Super Rugby Pacific campaign with a home game against Moana Pasifika under the roof tonight, will do well to start that journey by giving us some rugby to write home about.

Clarke Dermody, entering his second season as Highlanders coach with a fresh-looking squad, acknowledges any team at this level has an obligation to entertain, and it must start tonight.

"Definitely, and we’ve talked about it," Dermody said this week.

"We’re away for two weeks after this. This is our first opportunity to inspire our fans at home, and the fact it’s O Week makes it even better with the buzz that the students bring.

"We may have to shout the lineout calls, but that’s fine.

"The boys are really excited. We’ve had a good preseason but there are no rewards for that.

"We understand what’s coming with Moana Pasifika around their physicality. They’re really dangerous when they get inside your 22m, so we know it’s going to be a big challenge."

The Highlanders cannot afford a repeat of the early rounds last year, when they copped a vicious draw and were spanked in each of their first three games.

That — and the fact the Highlanders must look to excel in other areas, as they do not have the sheer on-field class possessed by some other sides — has led to an emphasis on fitness, and a change in a major off-field role.

"Our learning from last year was we didn’t start the season fast, so a big focus this year has been around our conditioning and making sure we’re game-ready to start the season," Dermody said.

"James Holden has come in from Tasman, replacing Simon Jones. It’s just a fresh look on things, and he’s got the boys in a good spot."

There are new faces everywhere you look in this Highlanders squad.

Some are instantly exciting — the combination of Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens will be watched with particular interest — and all had added to the team, Dermody said.

"They’ve all really added to our environment. They’re good men, and they’ve added their personalities into the team.

"They’ve come down and really pushed the guys that have been here, so it’s created a good edge among the team."

The Highlanders’ forward pack is highly familiar, though young front-rowers Henry Bell and Saula Ma’u are still on the green side.

It is in the backs where the unknowns lie.

Will Folau Fakatava now spread his wings? Will Welsh first five Rhys Patchell show plenty of "hwyl"? Can Sam Gilbert and Tanielu Tele’a solve the endless midfield issue? And will the new outside backs and Jona Nareki get a chance to carve up?

All is about to be revealed.

Moana Pasifika bring a decent tight five and a couple of useful attacking weapons, but the Highlanders need to win their opener as they have a tricky few weeks to come.

Highlanders v Moana Pasifika

Dunedin, 7.05pm

Highlanders: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Rhys Patchell, Folau Fakatava, Hugh Renton, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Fabian Holland, Pari Pari Parkinson, Saula Ma’u, Henry Bell, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Jack Taylor, Ayden Johnstone, Jermaine Ainsley, Oliver Haig, Nikora Broughton, Nathan Hastie, Cameron Millar, Jonah Lowe.

Moana Pasifika: Danny Toala, Nigel Ah Wong, Pepesana Patafilo, Julian Savea, Viliami Fine, William Havili, Ereatara Enari, Lotu Inisi, Alamanda Motuga, Samuel Slade, Tom Savage, Sione Mafileo, Sama Malolo, James Lay (captain). Reserves: Samiuela Moli, Abraham Pole, Suetena Asomua, Allan Craig, Jacob Norris, Aisea Halo, D’angelo Leuila, Anzelo Tuitavuki.