The New Zealanders:
Another New Zealand outfit that has seen the departure of a coaching team, as Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown leave Dunedin and head elsewhere. The four years under Joseph and Brown were successful enough, including the title three years ago.
There is a whole new coaching setup, with Aaron Mauger taking over the head coach position, backed by Mark Hammett in the assistant coach role. Mauger is highly thought of as a coach, yet he was fired from his last job as head coach at the Leicester Tigers.
His departure from Leicester was somewhat surprising, he was told that his time was up just two days after leading the club to their first silverware in four years. It was the Anglo-Welsh Cup, perhaps not the biggest trophy on offer, but it was still the first in a while. He had taken over the reins at the club just three months earlier when Richard Cockerill was fired, and it seemed that he had just managed to get the club to turn the corner, when he was given the boot. The UK’s Daily Telegraph described the axing as “brutal” – However, one man’s meat is another’s poison, and the Highlanders were pleased to welcome the ex-All Black into their fold.
We will be watching his progress with the Highlanders very closely.
2017 was yet another solid season for the Highlanders. They qualified for the Super Rugby quarter-finals, and also managed to beat the touring British and Irish Lions.
With 11 wins in 15 matches, a snapshot of the previous year’s results, gave them another quarterfinal, but they were outclassed by the Crusaders in that playoff on the wettest day imaginable.
Yet another team to start their season with a bye, the rubber meets the road on the 23rd Feb, when the Blues come a-calling in Dunedin.
And then we have the most ridiculous scenario imaginable – The Highlanders have another bye weekend. A bye in week 1, and a bye in week 3? What exactly were those fixture-list fundis of SANZAAR thinking? Or should we ask what they were smoking? This is simply stupid, someone deserves to be fired!
The real season them commences again, when the Stormers arrive in Dunedin, followed by the Crusaders.
The first away game of the season is against the Hurricanes in Wellington, followed by another away game visiting the Chiefs in Hamilton.
And then we get to Round 8 and, lo! – The Highlanders have their 3rd Bye! Ridiculous has just become truly bizarre! Five games into the competition and the Highlanders have had all three their byes?
This bizarre bye is followed by yet another home game, against the Brumbies. Next up the Highlanders have a return fixture against the Blues in Auckland. Weird that!
After Auckland, the Highlanders pack their bags and passports and head for South Africa to play the Bulls and then the Sharks. They return home to face the Lions, and promptly head out again to play the Waratahs and the Reds in Australia, before another home game against the Hurricanes.
Next up is a game in Fiji vs the Chiefs , then back to New Zealand for the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Their season ends with a visit from the Rebels to Dunedin.
I have seen some stupidity from SANZAAR in the last ten years or so, but this fixture list must rank close to the top of the list.
How the Highlanders cope without the steady hand of Lima Sopoaga when he leaves at the end of this season remains to be seen. They already appear a bit thin in the pivot position, despite their depth elsewhere in the backs. They do have the master-craftsman Aaron Smith at 9, as long as he keeps his excursions to public toilet facilities to a minimum.
Ben Smith returns from his sabbatical, joining the likes of Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Tevita Li, Waisake Naholo, and Kayne Hammingto in an established back division.
Up front the immense presence of Liam Squire will provide a spine supported by the likes of Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Tom Franklin, James Lentjes, Dan Pryor, and Luke Whitelock.
This remains a well-balanced squad.
Aaron Mauger is known as one of the thinkers in the game of rugby. A weird, but kind fixture list allows for three successive home games against the Blues, Stormers and Crusaders, with plenty of prep time during the two byes. They have the opportunity to get a really solid start to their season.
Let us not forget that the Highlanders ended the 2017 regular season as the form team, winning of their last 11 games. They have that legacy to build on! They will hope that continues at the start of 2018.
I have no doubt that the Highlanders will be contenders for another playoff fixture or two.