The Highlanders bid to reclaim Super Rugby dominance in 2011 has suffered a major set back. Marquee signing Colin Slade has been diagnosed with a broken jaw after suffering a knock in the team's preseason game against the Blues on Saturday. The injury will see Slade sidelined for the next six to eight weeks, leaving a gaping hole in the Highlanders backline.
What a cruel twist of fate for a team that has had more than their share of bad luck over the past few seasons. Numerous injuries have seen that they have barely fielded their top lineup at all and as a consequence, have struggled to win games.
But as they say, there's no use crying over spilt milk. The key now is for the Highlanders to look at the options available to them and make the best of the situation.
Fortunately, there is a replacement waiting in the wings who goes by the name of Lima Sopoaga.
Sopoaga is a skillful, gutsy First Five who has a ton of ability and potential. However having only one ITM Cup campaign under his belt, he lacks in experience and will find the pace of the game and the decision making a huge challenge.
The Highlanders most likely picked Sopoaga with the intention of using him behind Slade, to help him develop so in the coming seasons he will be a top class No 10. And there is no doubt that he will be just that. But it will be a huge jump to start in his debut game against a strong looking Hurricanes team in Wellington at such a young age.
A good performance against the Blues in their first preseason hit out will boost the franchises confidence in him and if he can cope with the decision making required at the highest level, he could turn out to be just what the Highlanders are looking for at First Five.
They also have young Southland talent Robbie Robinson, who is capable of playing in the No. 10 jumper and did so for a large part of last years ITM Cup for Southland. But fullback seems to be his best position and it seems unlikely that he will get the nod at No. 10 ahead of Sopoaga.
In regards to Slade, the Highlanders will be doing everything they can to get him back to full fitness as soon as possible. While Sopoaga and Robinson are both talented players, Slade is one of three backs in the Highlanders with test match experience which will be key in their season. Many see him as being the second best No. 10 in New Zealand behind Daniel Carter, further showing his importance to the team.
Despite losing their game against the Blues 31-29, the Highlanders look in good shape for the 2011 season. Young talents Aaron Smith, Kade Poki, Nick Croswell and Nasi Manu all impressed, while a strong experienced tight five, a level-headed halfback in Jimmy Cowan and some flair out wide should give the Highlanders a new platform to work with which they have been lacking for the past five seasons.
The Highlanders have two more preseason games before their first game of the Super 15 on Feb. 18 against the Hurricanes in Wellington.