The Highlanders have finished 2014 after narrowly losing to the Sharks in Durban, but they finished sixth, making the playoffs for the first time since 2002, with a squad with only a few big names and were third in the New Zealand conference.
How did you rate the Highlanders in Super Rugby 2014?
I expected them to finish at the bottom of the New Zealand in 2014 and so, they actually performed above expectations. This squad was supposed to struggle with only Aaron and Ben Smith expected to bring some excitement to this team, but boy was I wrong.
The Highlanders often struggle to score tries, but in 2014 under the new coaching staff including Tony Brown, Jon Preston and Scott McLeod along with Jamie Joseph they managed to unlock defences. I think that Tony Brown especially got the best out of the Highlanders backline, with previously underrated players like Richard Buckman, Phil Burleigh, Lima Sopoaga and Patrick Osborne excelling, while Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith and Aaron Smith were the Highlanders best backs in the season. The forwards were also previously underrated with Joe Wheeler, Nasi Manu, Shane Christie, Ma’afu Fia, Chris King, Liam Coltman and Elliot Dixon enjoying some great form during Super Rugby 2014.
The Highlanders also rotated their squad more this season than they did in previous seasons and this helped to keep them fresher and was helped by having the depth of quality players who could play a role in the team.
The backline was sublime, but unfortunately the forwards struggled at set pieces during Super Rugby 2014 and this cost them in their last three games in 2014 against the Waratahs, Crusaders and Sharks. They really missed Brad Thorn’s leadership at set pieces and power in the scrums. The Highlanders need to recruit one good lock, hooker and a couple of props in my opinion since they will lose Chris King, Jarrad Hoeata and Brad Thorn next season.
Some potential targets could be found by raiding the Blues or Crusaders tight forwards stocks with some great players not getting much gametime in Super Rugby.
Disappointments in 2014
Willie Ripia never played in Super Rugby 2014. I would have rather seen Ihaia West picked up by the Highlanders to provide backup to Lima Sopoaga. He would have been great off the bench. There are some other good young first five eighths who would offer more potential than Willie Ripia who was at best only a short-term option anyway. The Blues subsequently got some good use out of West, but I think the Highlanders missed out there.
I also expected to see more of young Argentina prop Matias Diaz who didn’t live up to his potential in 2014.
I would give the Highlanders 8/10 for their season. Their attacking play has improved, but their set pieces struggled against the top teams. This is ironic, given the history of the Highlanders franchise who traditionally had a strong set piece and forward pack and backs who failed to break the advantage line.
MVP – Ben Smith was amazing in Super Rugby 2014 with his counter-attacking and defensive game. He reads the game so well. Other players to standout were Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith.
Most improved players – Malakai Fekitoa went from a Blues reject and fighting for a starting spot to playing his way into the All Blacks in one season. Other improved players were Joe Wheeler, Shane Christie, Lima Sopoaga, Richard Buckman and Patrick Osborne really proved themselves at Super Rugby level this season.