Learning curve ahead of new-look Highlanders

Clarke Dermody is backing his new players to handle Super Rugby if they are given some time and patience.

Dermody named his second Highlanders squad yesterday to mark the official beginning of the post-Aaron Smith era and what will, inevitably, be viewed as a rebuilding period.

There were effectively no surprises, as most of the new signings had already been announced, though the signings of midfield backs Matt Whaanga (Southland) and Tanielu Tele’a (Blues/Auckland) and the return of hooker Ricky Jackson at least offered mild talking points.

The feature of the squad was always going to be the move to youth following the departures of Smith, Shannon Frizell and a swag of relative veterans.

No fewer than 14 of the 38 players were born in the 21st century, so the time-worn phrase "if you are good enough, you are old enough" will have to be dragged out.

"You’ve got to tread carefully there," Dermody said.

"Super Rugby is a tough competition.

"But the benefit the Highlanders have without a plethora of All Blacks is we get a full month leading into Christmas with our squad, minus Ethan de Groot, who’s on an All Blacks break.

"We get a lot of time to spend with our players."

Time in the saddle will be vital for the likes of hooker Jack Taylor, flanker Oliver Haig, halfback Nathan Hastie and midfield back Jake Te Hiwi, all of whom have already had a taste of Highlanders rugby as injury replacements.

Generation Z might need handling with a little more care, Dermody acknowledged.

"I think there’s been a definite change in the past few years across the board. The connection and relationship is really important now.

"I was coached by really good coaches but we were just told what to do, and we did it.

"There’s a lot more collaboration now with the younger guys. You almost have to take them on a bit of a journey of why we’re doing it, and get a bit better buy-in."

There was a time when the Highlanders were accused of ignoring their own provinces, but that is certainly not the case now.

There are seventeen Otago players and four Southlanders in the squad, and Dermody said the club was committed to developing and selecting local talent, much of which was now getting honed through the Highlanders high performance programme.

The absence of Smith and company, and the general greenness of the squad, means 2024 will be viewed by many as a rebuilding year, but Dermody hopes the strong local presence will arouse some interest.

"I want people to get excited about seeing local guys in the Highlanders, who have grown up here and have been walking the streets with our supporters.

"There will be no lack of enthusiasm and excitement from them to do the best for the club.

"We will still hold expectations pretty high for ourselves."

Competition in the squad looks particularly fierce at hooker, where Jackson returns to contend with rookies Taylor and Henry Bell, and first five.

The No 10 jersey looks wide open as second-year pivot Cameron Millar is joined by Otago rookie Ajay Faleafaga and Welsh veteran Rhys Patchell, who arrives in New Zealand next week.

"I believe we’ve got two of the best up-and-coming 10s in the country," Dermody said.

"I guess it’s about putting a mechanism around them to fast-track their progress around running a game and being professional, and that’s everything that Rhys is as an international 10 coming to help grow our guys."

Dermody talked to outgoing Blues coach Leon MacDonald about Tele’a, who has battled various injuries.

The Aucklander offers a power dynamic that the Highlanders have lost through the season-ending injury to Thomas Umaga-Jensen and the departure of Fetuli Paea.

New signings Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai give the Highlanders the most potential in their outside backs in a long time.

Former Crusaders lock Mitchell Dunshea, who has signed for the Highlanders for two years, is not expected back until April after having Achilles surgery.

With fellow beanpole Will Tucker also facing some time off, the Highlanders are working through the process of finding an injury replacement in the second row.

Various players, including rising Otago players Josh Whaanga and Finn Hurley, will be attached as wider training squad members.

Billy Harmon captained the Highlanders for the first time this season but Dermody wanted to get squad naming day out of the way before confirming his leader.

A moderately rejigged Highlanders coaching team has been established. Club great Ben Smith has been upgraded to a fulltime assistant, as backs coach, and former player Kendrick Lynn returns from France as attack coach.

Tom Donnelly (forwards), Dave Dillon (defence) and Riki Flutey (skills) remain in their positions.

The Highlanders, who officially assemble on November 23, will play Moana Pasifika, the Crusaders and the Hurricanes in the preseason before their season opener against Moana Pasifika on February 24.

hayden.meikle@odt.co.nz