For a long time, the Highlanders have been at the bottom of the New Zealand Super Rugby hierarchy. But last year, they had their first non-losing season since 2005, managing to finish third in the New Zealand conference. Their improvement under Jamie Joseph and the influx of talent has Highlanders fans optimistic that they can finally make the playoffs.
In recent years the deep south has become a destination for talented players who were unable to make their own Super Rugby franchise. Eighteen of their 32 players come from outside the Highlanders' franchise region. But one team's trash is another team's treasure.
This year's edition of the Highlanders features 11 internationally capped players, seven of which played in the Rugby World Cup last year.
Leading from the front is big Southlander Jamie Mackintosh. The 130-kg prop has played age grade rugby for New Zealand all his life. He is a strong scrummager and a powerful ball runner. On the other side of the scrum will probably be fellow Southlander Chris King, who has always been one of the better props in the competition despite never being selected for the All Blacks. Veteran Bronson Murray and rookie Ma'afu Fia round out the rest of the props.
At rake, making his Highlanders debut is All Black veteran Andrew Hore. After captaining the Hurricanes last year, he was controversially released by coach Mark Hammett and decided to move down south as a result. He is a mobile hooker with a high work rate, often getting turnovers at the breakdown. Behind him will be Southland hero Jason Rutledge. At 34, Rutledge has played his best rugby over the past two years, with a powerful pick-and-go and a high work rate on defense. It will be interesting to see how much game time he gets this season.
The second row will be led by last year's new All Black Jarrad Hoeata. The hard-tackling Taranaki import will be teaming up with Southlander Josh Bekhuis, who has made improvements every year he has played for the Highlanders. He will finally be getting some more starting time due to Tom Donnelly's departure for Canterbury. Bay of Plenty Steamer Culum Retallick will be backing them up, after playing with the Chiefs in the past.
The Highlanders have one of the most talented loose forward groups in the country. All Black Adam Thomson has excited fans with his ball running and ball winning since his debut season in 2008. Manawatu flankers Nick Crosswell and Doug Tietjens have been solid performers for their province over the past few years. Nasi Manu will return to wreak havoc on opposing defenses with his physical ball running. Few men can bump off Benson Stanley so easily.
English loose forward James Haskell is their most high-profile acquisition in the forwards. The 26-year-old will join them later in the year due to his commitments in Japan. He says that he wants to play in New Zealand to experience a new playing environment and improve as a player.
He is capable of lining up in all three loose forward positions as shown during the World Cup. He is great at the breakdowns and at 6'4", he is tall enough to be a line-out option. How he adjusts to the New Zealand style of game remains to be seen.
At halfback, former captain Jimmy Cowan will look to become the player he was in 2009, when he was the All Blacks' starting halfback. Unlike Weepu and Ellis, he can make the long pass without taking the extra step. He is also one of the best defensive halfbacks in the world, rarely missing tackles and able to tackle much bigger men. What holds him back, though, is his lack of speed.
His backups are Manawatu and New Zealand Maori halfback Aaron Smith. Smith has the speed around the fringes and could become a great halfback in the future. Many people want him to play instead of Jimmy Cowan because of his offensive ability, but that will depend on if Cowan can return to form.
The much-maligned Colin Slade will have to prove himself this season. After average performances for the All Blacks against the Springboks and Argentina, and Aaron Cruden's resurgence during the World Cup, many were critical of the decision to make him Dan Carter's backup, especially because of his limited game time for the Highlanders.
Last year he battled repeated injuries, mainly to his jaw, and only played three games for the franchise. The Cantabrian has the speed and the boot to play the position, but he needs to open up and take more risks to prove he can make it on the international stage. Otago man Chris Noakes and the improving Wellingtonian Lima Sopoaga provide capable backups in case he faces injury problems again.
The versatile Tamati Ellison returns to New Zealand after a stint in Japan. Before he left, he was playing the best rugby of his career for the Hurricanes. Kendrick Lynn and fellow Wellingtonian Shaun Treeby will be joining him in the midfield. Lynn has always been a great linebreaker for Southland and Treeby had a great rookie season last year for the Highlanders.
On the wing, making his Highlanders debut will be former Hurricane Hosea Gear. Graham Henry called Gear the "best winger in the world," but his problems have always been his work rate in defense. On the other side will be Tongan winger Siale Piutau, who was probably their best player in the World Cup, with his outstanding speed and linebreaking ability. Their pairing may be one of the best wing combinations in the country.
At fullback is two-test All Black Ben Smith. He is an outstanding counter-attacker with great defense. He was unlucky to miss out on All Blacks selection last year, but with Muliaina's departure, there will be a fullback spot up for grabs. Taranaki fullback Kurt Baker is also a solid option at backup, with sevens experience to his name and no shortage of pace.
Even with all this talent, however, the Highlanders will have tough competition in the New Zealand conference. But the way they improved last year, the race for the New Zealand conference title will be a competitive one. I just hope they don't wear the lime greens again.