Improvement made but more still needed

Highlanders winger Timoci Tavatavanawai is congratulated by team-mates (from left) Jacob...
Highlanders winger Timoci Tavatavanawai is congratulated by team-mates (from left) Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Sean Withy, Ajay Faleafaga and Folau Fakatava after scoring a try against the Fijian Drua at Forsyth Barr Stadium on May 26. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
From five wins to six, from ninth place to sixth - hey, the Highlanders are at least trending in the right direction. There is still much work to do, however. 

Hayden Meikle looks back over the season.

Best performance

There was much to like about the gutsy 23-21 win over the Waratahs in week three - though the opposition later plummeted to the wooden spoon - while the 28-17 win over Moana Pasifika on a flooded ground in Tonga was highly impressive. But obviously the only choice for this category is the glorious 32-29 win over the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on May 11. Dreamland. It broke a three-year losing streak to fellow New Zealand sides, it helped consign the Evil Empire to the dustbin of irrelevancy, and it delivered a homegrown star in the form of 27-point kicking machine Cameron Millar. Super Rugby at its absolute finest.

Worst performance

Heavy or heavy-ish losses to the Blues (twice), Hurricanes (twice) and the Melbourne Rebels were disappointing but hardly a massive shock. The 7-6 win over the Force was the worst game in the history of Super Rugby but it at least ended with a win for the Highlanders. The real blotch, the nasty stain, on the season was the 31-0 loss to the Reds. It was truly awful. It was also a fifth straight loss for the Highlanders, whose season looked utterly shot at that point. They deserve real credit for rebuilding from that low point.

Good stuff

Sixth place - or best of the rest, given the top five were a cut above - was nothing to sniff at. The Highlanders showed glimpses of more attacking verve, and saw some excellent development from the likes of Millar, Henry Bell and Oliver Haig. Their recruitment of Timoci Tavatavanawai, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Tanielu Tele’a and Mitch Dunshea was a home run. Goal kicking was decent. The Highlanders were again some of the most effective tacklers in the competition. They were in the fight for large periods of nearly every game. While they were decimated by injuries in 2023, they fared much better this season, though losing No 8 Hugh Renton was a blow. And did we mention the win over the Crusaders?

Bad stuff

The Highlanders scored four fewer points per game this year than last. They were ninth in tries (38) and second-last in clean breaks (64). The scrum was a real mixed bag, and the lineout throwing was not always flash. The Highlanders also tied for second with nine yellow cards. The win over the Crusaders was heartwarming but they did not manage to beat any of the good teams. The Highlanders kicked a lot, and not all of it was effective.

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, pictured in action against Moana Pasifika in the opening round,...
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, pictured in action against Moana Pasifika in the opening round, had a big impact in his first season for the Highlanders. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

Player of the season

They call him Jimmy the Bruss, though many of us are too old to understand what that means. New signing Timoci Tavatavanawai provided all the explosiveness and aggression the Highlanders were expecting on the wing. But what was a real eye-opener was his ability to snaffle turnovers. He nabbed a staggering 11, more than most loose forwards.

Honourable mentions

Billy Harmon again showed all his class and workrate at both No 8 and No 7. He is heading to Japan, and leaves a massive hole. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens was sensational in the first half of the season. Folau Fakatava, Fabian Holland and Tanielu Tele’a all had their moments.

Most improved

A couple of scratchy early efforts had some wondering if Cameron Millar was not quite at Super Rugby level yet. They were very wrong. He finished the season with a bang and there is huge excitement over his future. A fine young man with a massive boot, a calm head and surprisingly quick feet.

Most promising

Oliver Haig came from nowhere, and quickly, to lay claim to the No6 jersey. Still has a bit to learn but he has all the attributes to succeed.

Questions for 2025

1.  Can the Highlanders take the leap from competitive top six team to proper top four team?

2.  How are they going to find a way to beat the Blues, Hurricanes and Chiefs?

3.  How will an 11-team competition even work? And the playoffs?

4.  Will Ethan de Groot be the permanent new captain?

5.  Are the Highlanders out trying to make a splash in the recruitment market?

6.  Is another international first five incoming, to follow Freddie Burns and Rhys Patchell? Or is it time to let Cameron Millar and Ajay Faleafaga run this team?

7.  Will head coach Clarke Dermody get an extension to his contract? And will he get a new assistant or two?


In the ODT tomorrow and online Hayden Meikle signals likely changes. 


Highlanders in 2024

The numbers

• Played:  15, won 6, lost 9, sixth after regular season, beaten 32-16 in quarterfinals.

• Scored:  321 points (21.4 per game), conceded 434 points (28.9 per game).

• Leading tries:  Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens 8, Timoci Tavatavanawai 5, Folau Fakatava 3, Nikora Broughton 3, Jona Nareki 3.

• Leading scorer:  Sam Gilbert 78 (try, 23 con, 9 pen).

• Iron men:  Tavatavanawai (one sub), Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (two subs), Fakatava (two subs), Henry Bell (two subs) and Broughton (nine subs) played all 15 games.