Every day this week we will preview a different Kiwi Super Rugby team ahead of the competition kick-off this weekend. Today, the Highlanders.
The down low:
Would it surprise you to hear the Highlanders come into the season as the underdogs again? Yeah, didn't think so. But here we are, leading into a new Super Rugby campaign with the Highlanders predicted to struggle.
It's a familiar narrative for the Southerners, but one they've shown they're happy to prove wrong in past seasons. While they ended to 2020 season fourth on the ladder with a 3-5 record, they did provide a stern test against the top teams and got the better of both the Chiefs and the Hurricanes.
In 2021, they will have to cope with the loss of star openside flanker Dillon Hunt, who has joined the Blues, while first-choice midfielder Rob Thompson has left for Japan. They have recruited well, welcoming the likes of Billy Harmon, Solomon Alaimalo and Liam Squire, while several other players return from injury-hampered 2020 campaigns.
Shannon Frizell, Josh Ioane and Aaron Smith will again be vital to the cause as Tony Brown takes the reins as head coach. With Brown at the helm, eyes will be drawn to the team to see what he can do after the reputation he has developed during his time as an assistant coach with Japan.
Defining factor: Aaron Smith
Yes, it's a team sport and it takes the performances of many to achieve success. However, few players have the influence on their team as Aaron Smith does.
The All Blacks incumbent halfback is aging like a fine wine. In 2020, it was on show as he was the spark on attack with quick ball from the ruck, took his opportunities to run and made plays defensively. Away from the ball, Smith was always vocal and was often the first player there to celebrate a teammate's try.
That show of passion doesn't go unnoticed by the group, particularly when it comes from their most experienced player. Smith has earned respect, and then some, over his years in Highlanders colours, and he is the difference maker in Dunedin.
Positional battle: Hooker
The Highlanders have been set running Liam Coltman in the starting side and Ash Dixon off the bench later in the game, but having seen just how pivotal Dixon has been to the attack of Hawke's Bay in recent seasons, will they continue to play it that way?
Coltman is only one year the junior of the 32-year-old Dixon, so there's no argument of trying to grow a young talent between these two. Bring Ricky Jackson into the frame and that changes. The 22-year-old hooker is expected to be fit for the start of the season and could put pressure on the two elder statesmen throughout the season as he tries to earn some valuable experience at the Super Rugby level.
This battle could be decided by a number of things, but how the team wants to play under Brown is going to be a big factor in which hooking option becomes the most valuable for the Highlanders.
Under-the-radar prospect: Josh Dickson
More people would know about Josh Dickson had he not suffered a season-ending injury midway through last year's Super Rugby Aotearoa competition. The 26-year-old lock was in the midst of a breakout-calibre season before going down and, with the All Blacks in need of locks, was drawing some traction as a potential international flier.
It wasn't to be, but that will no doubt fuel the fire for Dickson in 2021. He'll likely lead a strong group of locks for the Highlanders who could prove to be an asset now they are fully healthy.
One of the most reliable lineout targets in the competition and a terrific defensive player, Dickson will be key for the Highlanders in 2021.
Ins and outs:
The Highlanders saw a few key players depart at the end of 2020, most notably midfield back Thompson and impressive loose forward Hunt. Hunt was among the best in the competition last season and leaves a major hole to be filled. But the Highlanders have made some smart recruitment decisions, bringing in flanker Harmon from the Crusaders, utility back Alaimalo from the Chiefs, and welcoming the return of former All Blacks blindside Squire.
Brown also takes over as head coach for 2021, stepping in as Aaron Mauger's successor.
In: Solomon Alaimalo, Bryn Evans, Josh Hohneck, Jermaine Ainsley, Billy Harmon, Liam Squire, Kazuki Himeno, Fetuli Paea, Sam Gilbert, Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Out: Josh McKay (Crusaders), Rob Thompson (Japan), Bryn Gatland (Chiefs), Dillon Hunt (Blues), Jesse Parete (Japan), Jack Whetton (Waratahs), Nathan Vella (Crusaders).
The Highlanders surprised a few last season, but ultimately ended up near the foot of the ladder anyway – such is the competitiveness of Super Rugby Aotearoa. This season, they come in with the familiar tag of underdogs. While they have plenty of talent in the team, the lack the depth and strike power in the backline to contend. They are likely to tip up some teams along the way and could play spoiler, but go into the season as the outsiders.