Super 15 Rugby: Bright Future For Once-Proud Highlanders

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIJanuary 22, 2011

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 26:  Jimmy Cowan of the Highlanders leads Jamie MacKintosh onto the field during the round seven Super 14 between the Highlanders and the Lions at Carisbrook on March 26, 2010 in Dunedin, New Zealand.  (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)
Ross Land/Getty Images

It's been nine long years since Highlanders fans were able to celebrate making the Top Four of a Super Rugby competition, but after years of rebuilding it seems they may finally have a bright future ahead.

The year was 2002 and the team was loaded with world class players.

They boasted an all-All Black front row in Carl Hoeft, Anton Oliver and Carl Hayman, who were backed up by two franchise stalwarts in Simon Maling and John Blaikie at lock.

Taine Randell, Josh Blackie and Kelvin Middleton completed what was arguably the best forward pack in the competition.

The backs included Byron Kelleher, Tony Brown, Pita Alatini, Romi Ropati and Jeff Wilson, making for a team capable of scoring a ton of points.

Yes, the Highlanders were widely regarded as one of the powerhouses of the Super 12 (as it was known in those days). Beating them on their home turf of Carisbrook became near impossible, as they amassed a 16-game winning streak on their home ground.

While being bundled out of the competition by the unbeaten Crusaders in the semifinals, the Highlanders were able to walk away from the season with their respect intact and would enter the 2003 season as one of the favourites.

How things have changed.

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For the past six seasons, the Highlanders have been the bottom-placed New Zealand Super 14 team.

It was a downward spiral and it seemed as though they would never get out of it. Not only did they lack the quality players the other franchises had, they weren't able to attract new ones, and the few stars the team still had were looking at options elsewhere.

In late 2010, former Otago looseforward Jamie Joseph was appointed as the Head Coach of the team for the 2011 season.

Having gained a reputation as one of the best coaches in New Zealand over the past seasons, he was able to contract many players from outside of the franchise, making for a new look Highlanders team in 2011.

The most notable of these signings is the up-and-coming First-Five, Colin Slade. Slade is a player of extreme potential, directing play well and also a dangerous ball runner. He is capable of playing out wider, but the No. 10 jersey remains his best position. 

Slade's importance to the Highlanders can't be underestimated. In past seasons, they've had a good forward pack that's gained dominance, but the dominance has fallen away due to the lack of a top class First Five.

Slade should see that the Highlanders take full advantage of their momentum and will allow the backline to be more threatening on attack.

Other signings in the backs include the sevens danger man, Kurt Baker, who will add another attacking dimension out wide, but has the daunting task of filling the boots of Israel Dagg.

Lima Sopoaga and Telusa Veainu are both exciting young talents and will be very valuable to the Highlanders in the future if they can hold on to them.

To go with this, in the midfield they have been able to sign Counties Manukau excitement machine Siale Piutau, as well as Wellington's Shaun Treeby.

The bulk of the forward pack will remain unchanged, but new signings in the looseforwards add more depth to what is already a good looseforward trio, as well as Halani Aulika at prop, who was one of the form players in the 2010 ITM Cup.

The team may not be an overnight success, but adding these new players to the experienced campaigners from past seasons will see that in future seasons the team will flourish once again and will regain the respect it once held.

Their main problem this year will be depth. With the extension of the competition, it is now imperative that team's are able to have a complete squad of players at their disposal so they can ensure that all their players stay as fresh as possible for the whole season.

Unfortunately for the Highlanders, they don't have this luxury, and it will likely be their downfall.

Up front, they should be fine and will be as good as any of the other New Zealand teams.

A likely starting forward pack of Jamie Mackintosh, Jason Rutledge, Halani Aulika, Tom Donnelly, Josh Bekhuis, Adam Thompson, Alando Soakai and Nasi Manu will be as good as any around.

Chris King and John Hardie are both capable of starting and a large pool of players to choose from will see that the Highlanders should be able to excel up front.

It is in the backs where they lack.

Jimmy Cowan, Colin Slade, Shaun Treeby, Kenny Lynn, Ben Smith, James Patterson and Kurt Baker would seem like a probable starting line up given everyone was available. 

While this may not be a startling backline, it will be solid and should be capable of winning games for the Highlanders. However, beneath this, they have very little.

At halfback, the frustratingly inconsistent Sean Romans and the youngster Aaron Smith back up the team's general, Jimmy Cowan.  While Smith may be seen as a player for the future, he is new to Super Rugby and will take a while finding his feet.

Colin Slade looks to be the franchise future at first-five and is backed up by two more outstanding prospects for coming seasons in Robbie Robinson and Lima Sopoaga.

However, Robinson showed last year that he still has a lot to learn before he is considered a top-class Super Rugby player, while Sopoaga, in just his second year out of school, will be protected through his first Super Rugby campaign.

The midfield also looks inexperienced and will look to Kendrick Lynn for guidance after hitting good form before his ITM Cup was cut short at the end of 2010.

Out wide there is again little depth, which could be problematic with Kurt Baker's playing future uncertain following a back injury. 

With all this said, the Highlanders should look at 2011 as an opportunity to develop their younger players, to help them gain more experience at a higher level of rugby, which will see them become a real force in years to come.

Looking back at past seasons, the Highlanders main problem has been their inability to close out tight games. So often they would get within seven points of their opposition, only to fall at the final hurdle.

This must be addressed and if they are able to reverse this trend, they could well feature in the later stages of the competition.

They will be uncompromising up front as always, but the success of this team may lie in the backs ability to use the ball the forwards give them.

I would be optimistic to the point of foolishness to say they will be one of the teams to beat in the 2011 season, but should they hold onto the new players they have acquired, they will be a top team in coming seasons.

Who knows? Maybe one day we will look back at the names Baker, Robinson, Bekhuis and Hardie and hold them in the same regard as that of Wilson, Brown, Randell, Maling and the rest of the heroes of the glory days of Highlanders rugby.