When the season was suspended due to the Covid-19 Pandemic after seven rounds in March, the Highlanders sat at the bottom of the New Zealand conference and faced a tough road back to make the playoffs. But all that counts for nothing now as the Highlanders move back to equal pegging with all their counterparts in Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Losing the likes of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock and Tom Franklin had a big impact on the Highlanders early in 2020 but there were a number of moments that showed the Highlanders can still be a force in the competition.
They displayed great heart and determination to snatch a late victory over the Brumbies in Canberra in overtime and competed valiantly against their southern neighbours the Crusaders in Christchurch.
While veterans Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman take on much of the responsibility up front, there is an excitement factor out wide with players like Ngane Punivai, Jona Nareki, Tevita Nabura, Vilimoni Koroi and Josh McKay all poised to run free. Making the most of their uninhibited talents will be crucial if the Highlanders are going to upset some of their more fancied opponents.
Head Coach Aaron Mauger has a welcome problem at first five-eighth with three top quality players vying for the 10 jersey. Former Crusaders star Mitch Hunt started the season as the incumbent with one-Test All Black Josh Ioane at second five-eighth. Mauger has since hinted that Ioane will revert to number 10 for Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa meaning a three-horse race for the jersey between Hunt, Ioane and highly touted playmaker Bryn Gatland.
The Highlanders have boosted their outside back division with the high-profile signing of 2015 Rugby World Cup winner Nehe Milner-Skudder for Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa. Unable previously to begin a contract with Toulon due to an ongoing shoulder injury, Milner-Skudder was fit and ready to fill a gap for the Highlanders during the 10-week derby competition. Equally adept at any position in the back three, Milner-Skudder will add to the Highlanders back depth and provides genuine strike-power out wide.
Expect a bumper crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium for the opening game of Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa when the Highlanders host the Chiefs at 7.05pm on Saturday 13 June. The game marks the first time that crowds have been welcomed back en masse for professional sport since the world went into lockdown due to Covid-19. Grab your tickets to this historic occasion HERE.
The Highlanders will be a dangerous team in Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa. They get to wipe the slate clean from early 2020 and have nothing to lose. With Aaron Smith at halfback and a bevy of x-factor players out wide, the Highlanders are set to be the entertainers of the 10-week derby competition. If the Highlanders forward pack can step up and gain parity with their opponents then the men from the deep south will be a genuine threat to all-comers.
13 June: Highlanders v Chiefs, Forsyth Barr Stadium
27 June: Highlanders v Blues, Eden Park
4 July: Highlanders v Crusaders, Forsyth Barr Stadium
12 July: Highlanders v Hurricanes, Sky Stadium
19 July: Highlanders v Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
2 August: Highlanders v Blues, Forsyth Barr Stadium
9 August: Highlanders v Crusaders, Orangetheory Stadium
15 August: Highlanders v Hurricanes, Forsyth Barr Stadium
Forwards: Ash Dixon, Liam Coltman, Ricky Jackson, Ethan de Groot, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Jack Whetton, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Shannon Frizel, Dillon Hunt, Zane Kapeli, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Sione Misiloi, Jesse Parete
Backs: Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith, Bryn Gatland, Mitchell Hunt, Josh Ioane, Michael Collins, Ngane Punivai, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Scott Gregory, Chris Kuridrani, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Jona Nareki, Connor Garden-Bachop, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert, Nehe Milner-Skudder.