The second in a five part series of writers from the various New Zealand Super Rugby franchises giving their season ending exit interviews. The Highlanders.
For a team with so much talent and an impressive pedigree, season 2019 must surely be regarded a failure for my beloved Highlanders. Despite continuing the club record playoffs streak of six (second only in Super Rugby live streaks to the Chiefs), let’s not kid ourselves, this was not a finals quality Highlanders team.
There was much to like before the season on paper – a gutsy, experienced tight 5, a loose trio stacked with talent and depth, a dynamic backline. Most pundits had the Highlanders comfortably in the playoff mix with one Radio Sport commentator (who I’ll leave nameless to save his embarrassment) picking us to top the New Zealand conference.
For a whole bunch of reasons that I touch on later, this was a team that got nowhere near its potential. Even the 6 wins were nothing to write home about – big wins against under-strength Sunwolves and Waratahs teams, an close opening day win against a Chiefs team that was a shadow of the Chiefs of May and June, and streaky home wins against the Blues, Reds and Jaguares.
The real story of the season was found in games against the Hurricanes (twice), Rebels, Blues, Chiefs and Bulls. Six games that all should have been won from the position we were in but instead of gaining 24 competition points, they produced a paltry eight – ultimately the difference between a home playoff and just scraping in.
And scraping in was perhaps more than the 6-3-7 record deserved – in fact arguably the most satisfying game for Highlanders fans was the big Bulls win over the Lions to sneak us in. The season met it’s inevitable end in Christchurch, as most seasons tend to do. A spirited first half performance was never going to be enough in isolation and so it proved.
And you can’t talk about this season without talking about the departures. Ben Smith will be the most fondly remembered, but for a side that had only three All Blacks just four years ago, to lose eight in one go is a huge hit.
Despite a disappointing effort in the quarter-final, Liam Coltman had by some distance his best season in blue and gold. Josh Ioane absolutely delivered on his promise and can now put a mortgage on the 10 jersey for some time. A black jersey is surely in his future. Ben Smith was Ben Smith. And that is perhaps the biggest complement I could give him.
Where to begin? For a side laden with talent and traditionally known for it’s work without the ball, the defensive issues were exceptionally worrying especially in midfield. These were exacerbated by a real inability to execute our exit plays. The fact that 40% of the points conceded came within three minutes of an opposition kick-off is a massive cause for concern. In 2018 that number was just 14%. Also, what I suspect goes hand in hand with exit plays was our awful record at closing out games from winnable positions – both draws and both Hurricanes games standout in this regard. Being outscored 2 to 1 in the last twenty minutes over the season is simply not good enough.
WHERE TO IN 2020?
That ultimately is the question on the lips of every Highlanders fan. The player losses have been well documented and are substantial. The departure of five first choice forwards, the entire starting back three as well as experienced names such as Banks, Faddes and Dixon leave a huge gap. Arguably the key weeks of the 2020 season are in fact right ahead of us as recruitment continues. So far the rumours haven’t got the juices flowing so to speak – a reserve 10 (who like many fans, I’m going take a while to warm to after that dropgoal…) and a young winger. Further quality recruitment in a vastly contested world market is critical and a monumental task
Positively, the starting inside/midfield backs have all been retained and the 9-10-12-13 combination is critical to build around for next season. Up front expect Liam Coltman and/or James Lentjes to be named co-captains but much of the pressure will fall on the young locking pair of Paripari Parkinson and Josh Dickson. Talented sure, but far from proven at this level.
Lastly, it’s fair to say the current coaching team isn’t universally popular in these parts. The return of Tony Brown will alleviate some of the pressure but if 2020 turns out like 2019, expect the calls for a return of Jamie Joseph to louden by the week…
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