Ever since Jamie Joseph, and then Tony Brown left the Highlanders in 2016/2017, things have gone downhill. Aaron Mauger has taken the side backwards and with his contract expiring at the end of the year, I felt the Highlanders 40-20 against the Crusaders should be the final straw. In this article, I am going to look at the in-game tactics, team selections/squad and overall results.
Now whilst I don’t know the inside outs of rugby tactics, it doesn’t take a genius to get the general feel of the way a rugby team plays. Post the 2013 disaster, under Joseph the Highlanders played a brilliant tactical style. The game plan centred around a lot of kicking and backing the defence. This very worked well, with them conceding on average 27.8 points per game in 2014, 19.9 points per game in 2015 and 19.1 in 2016. In 2015 and 2016, we can see what is undoubtedly elite defence. After another solid season in 2017, Tony Brown left for Japan and Scott McLeod departed. McLeod’s departure led to a change in the defensive patterns under the stewardship of Glenn Delaney.
The drop off was stark, with Highlanders shipping an average of 28 points per game in 2018, 26.9 points per game in 2019. This led to Delaney’s departure, which then saw Mauger pick up the defence as Tony Brown returned to take over the attack. In a disrupted 2020, they have conceded an average of 32.1 points per game. These figures show a drop off of large proportions. Keeping in mind the squads in 2018 and 2019, were arguably the best the franchise has ever had, this is rather concerning. However, the defence whilst terrible, with them having some of the worst tackle stats in the competition, it is more the attack that has been painful. Without boring people with stats, between 2014 and 2016, they averaged 26.8, 27.9 and 27.5 points per game respectively.
Post Brown, a Hangover remained in 2018 as the side still scored some wonderful counter-attacking tries, averaging 27.1 points per game, with many players having their last hurrah, the side scored an average of 28.4 points per game. But upon closer inspection 52 of these points against the Sunwolves and 49 against a heavily rotated Waratahs side. If you take these two results out, the figure falls dramatically to 25.3, the worst since the 2013 season. Finally, the disrupted 2020 season saw the return of Brown, however, the game plan doesn’t look like his. This season they have averaged 20.4 points per game. The side haven’t averaged a figure this low since 2011, where their defence made up for it in a time when the team were more inclined to take the three then kick to the corner.
Whilst many attribute the attacking drop off this season to the substantial loss of players, whilst a factor I feel it is a weak excuse. Once again, I would be lying if I said I knew the inside outs of attack formations and whatnot, but from the naked eye, there are many things you can notice. For starters, the side was always known for their crazy tries scored by backs, led by Tony Brown. Men running onto the ball, guys going everywhere, and a Waisake Naholo who at large stages was shunted by the All Blacks scoring a lot of tries. Naholo managed 45 tries in 62 games for the Highlanders. The side used to attack from depth, with Sopoaga constantly a threat, these tactics between 2014-2016 are highlighted by in 2014 for example of the 37 tries scored in the regular, backs scored 32 of them. Jumping forward to 2019, of the 57 tries scored in the regular season the back scored 35 of them, the forwards scored 21 of them. There was also a penalty try.
These stats show a pattern, but I am going to cut to the chase as the things that show it the best are simply the things that can be seen from the eye. The Highlanders outside backs have struggled to score tries this year as Mauger ball has been in full swing. One-off runners taking it up, before a lock passing to a prop in midfield, the systems are horrific and it shows why the Highlanders have scored such a low amount of points. I will go more into the team later, but the idea of the Highlanders having a bad team is a myth. Coupling these tactics with the insistence on competitive kicks with midgets, things have reached a head. Watching try compilations from years gone by, you see wonderful attacking tries, these days we get pumped up by a rolling maul (albeit they are beautiful), or a 15m break. Things that used to be par for the course are now non-existent and it is painful.
Every fan of every sports team is always going to have an opinion on team selection, that is natural, and I am no exception to this. Whilst I can’t remember exactly, I am sure there were times that I had gripes with Joseph’s selections, but nothing sticks out. However, the most amazing thing about Jamie Joseph’s time at the Highlanders was the way he got the best out of relative no-names and turned players with potential into players that were world-class, similar to Scott Robertson.
However, Mauger has seemingly done the opposite in this field, with what in my opinion was the Highlanders best ever squad last season, we scraped into the playoffs, thanks to other results and dear I say it, had the tragic mosque shootings not happened, you suspect they might have not even made the playoffs. For example, Lima Sopoaga went from making an unlikely World Cup push in 2015, to leaving before the 2019 World Cup in his peak, due to him knowing he was unlikely to make the squad.
During my research, I compared the 2015 Super Rugby Final winning team to the team the drew at home to the Bulls last year. It is scary to think that the whole forward pack in 2019 either would have got in or been an equal player to their 2015 counterpart and Mauger builds his game round forward domination. Studies have been done and it is shown that player ability accounts for 80-90% of the result, but it is the extra 5% that good coaches get out of their players that makes the difference, Mauger doesn’t achieve that.
Moving into the 2020 squad and team selections. The whole thing is unacceptable. Losing 15 players is never going to make things easy, but it begs the question, why weren’t we blooding players like Pari Pari Parkinson and Josh McKay last year? Moving on people tell me the Highlanders don’t have a good squad, but once again look at the forwards. Ayden Johnstone, I would argue is an All Black in waiting, he has two good hookers, a solid tighthead in Siate Tokolahi, three brilliant young locks in Parkinson, Dickson and Selby-Rickit, and as has been evidenced in Super Rugby Aotearoa, the loose forwards are classy and competitive. Yet until now, they were underperforming, and they excuse was they just aren’t very good? The backs, however, are what annoys me the most.
We have the worlds best halfback cool, but then there is the no. 2. In a close game, they have shown their hand, they don’t want to bring Smith off. So, why have Hammington on the bench, who does everything Smith does except worse and not Folau Fakatava, who has bags of potential and can provide a spark as well as a point of difference. Whilst he might well be more prone to a mistake then Hammington, I have seen him change games for the Highlanders in limited minutes. He needs to be on the bench. We have three solid first fives and they chose to ruin Josh Ioane by playing him out of position, that is probably more on Tony Brown.
In midfield, I don’t have too many gripes. I have always felt Rob Thompson was best as a second five, and I do feel he has become a bit much of a crash-bash Northern Hemisphere player. As much as it would sadden some, if he was to leave come season end I wouldn’t have any issues. Tei Walden is a solid backup, whilst Umaga-Jensen hasn’t provided anything in his time down south. We then come to Sio Tomkinson. If I was writing this article before Super Aotearoa, I would have said he was the most overrated player I have ever seen, but since the start of SR Aotearoa, I have been impressed by his running and decision making. I think we have a second five, but not a centre. I believe we have never replaced Malakai Fekitoa. Fekitoa was very much underappreciated, but that is another story for another day.
Now we get to the back three. On the left-wing, we have Jona Nareki. A brilliant silky ball runner has a good boot on him, easily Super Rugby level. In my opinion, he hasn’t been great, but why? It is due to that style of play I have talked about. The wingers aren’t getting the ball in space with time to run. Give him space and he is lethal. On the right flank, Punivai is the man for me. With a small man in Nareki, we need a big winger on the right. Kuridrani is not up to it and is too old, ditto Nabura. Koroi is too small for the role likewise Nehe Milner-Skudder, but I will get to those at Fullback. Punivai has shown some pace and power and I feel him, and Sam Gilbert could fight it out there next season, maybe even play Punivai at centre.
At fullback, there are six players left. Connor Garden-Bachop has missed the whole season, so a big Mitre 10 Cup is required from him, whilst I think Koroi is defensively suspect and a bit small considering Nareki is already there. Milner-Skudder is a waste of time I’m afraid, hasn’t played in ages and past his best I am sure although I would love to be proved wrong. Scott Gregory is better than he showed against the Blues, but I feel the wing or centre is where he belongs. Then there is the incumbent. Michael Collins. I am a big fan of his, but ultimately his pace lets him down and that sort of showed as Sevu Reece beat him on the outside last week.
The option for me is Josh McKay. The Highlanders backline is crying out for a game-breaker, and he can provide that. I would have liked to have seen him get more opportunities in 2018 and 2019, although I understand he might have been struggling with his groin, but I have big issues with his use this season. He played the first two games, in the first of which he wasn’t great as was the whole team, whilst he did play a stinker against the Brumbies. However, the wet conditions certainly weren’t conducive to his strengths, and I feel backing the young man would have been a better option. He showed a good cameo against the Crusaders, whilst he was inconsistent against the Bulls. The Highlanders need game-breakers, and he is as close to that as the Highlanders have. Pick him or else he will go somewhere else and flourish. Those are just my opinions, but I feel like Mauger isn’t getting the best out of this squad.
A feature of Jamie Joseph’s Highlanders side was the grit, the determination. I have collated some stats from the seasons 2014-2016 and 2018-2020. See the table below:
|2014 (17 Games)||2015 (19 Games)||2016 (17 Games)||2018 (17 Games)||2019 (16 Games)||2020 (8 Games)||14-16 (53 Games)||18-20 (41 Games)|
|NZ Derby Wins||4||7||4||4||2||1||15||7|
|NZ Derby Losses||4||3||2||4||6||3||9||13|
This table is a lot to digest, but it says a lot. Let’s go through it. First of all, under Mauger, the Highlanders have played 41 games in this period, compared to 53 games between 2014-2016. As you can see there is progression backwards in the wins column, admittedly in 2020 this would be expected, but as we will see further down things are cause for concern. There have been more losses in 2018, 2019 and 2020 under Mauger than in 2015 and 2016, in less or the same amount of games.
The most intriguing bit is this next part. The close wins in losses, the -7 margin. Under Mauger, they have won eight and lost eight. Under Joseph, they won fifteen and lost twelve. More cause for concern is the big wins and big defeats, the 15+ margin. Under Joseph, they had 9 big wins, under Mauger they had 6. This is pretty even, but as mentioned early in the article, one of these came against a heavily rotated Waratahs side and one against the Sunwolves. The big defeats, however, say a lot. In 53 games, it happened just 4 times under Joseph. Under Mauger, this has happened a whopping 11 times.
Finally, we look at NZ Derbies. Joseph won 15/24, whilst Mauger has won 7/20. That speaks for itself. So overall in these stats we can see under Mauger the Highlanders lose more games and at higher margins, this is concerning. The side has lost its grit. These stats arguably flatter Mauger as well, due to him having a better squad. This table also doesn’t take into account the difference between home and away, which I know from the research favours Joseph heavily. By having the roofed stadium, we have a huge advantage yet under Mauger we don’t use it. These stats for me put the nail into the coffin, so what can the Highlanders do?
2021 And Beyond
I feel I have identified that Mauger is not the man to take the Highlander forward, so what options do they have. I have thought of several suggestions but have worked it down to a shortlist of four options. Option one is very out there and unlikely, and possibly even stupid. Milton Haig went to Southland Boys High School, and after doing wonders with Georgia now coaching in Japan. Considering his Suntory side has just signed Beauden Barrett, I doubt he is going anywhere, anytime soon, but he is a fun option.
Option two is again a bit out there. Hawkes Bay head coach Mark Ozich. Under Ozich, Hawkes Bay are playing a good brand of rugby, that I feel would fit in well down south. He is under contract until 2021 though, so he would need a release. This would be an interesting avenue.
Option three is my favoured option. Ben Herring. Herring had Otago playing electric attacking rugby and him and Tony Brown, could cook up one of the most exciting concoctions of all time. The Southlander would fit in well as he would no doubt have the passion for it. The question with this one is whether he would want it. The 40-year-old quit with Otago to do something a bit different over in America, but due to COVID, he has to come home. If you can twist his arm, he is the man.
Failing this, the only other option is for the side to promote Brown and Dermody to co-coaches. Once again, the issue with this is whether they would want to do this. I struggle to believe this is the sort of rugby Brown wants the Highlanders to be playing, whilst Clark Dermody is doing good things with the forwards. If they did take this option, then I believe they should try and target Shane Christie as a defence coach. Christie has done good things up at Tasman and was here during the Highlanders glory years.
Ultimately this is just my two-sense worth, but as someone who has gone to pretty well every home game since 2011, I feel that getting rid of Mauger is the step Roger Clark needs to take. I really want the side to do well, so this isn’t to bring hate or anything of that type!
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