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WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT?- A Potential 2021 Highlanders Squad

With the Mitre 10 Cup start and the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa fast approaching, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This will be a five-part series, starting with the Highlanders.

THE LOWDOWN

In 2020, the Highlanders have been up and down, I have already done an article on the Highlanders coaching and results which is available on the website, but since I wrote that, there were some real improvements in that 33-31 win over the Chiefs. The Highlanders had a mass clear-out last year, so with a low-profile squad, there won’t be too many major changes this time out. Up front, it is expected that Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown and rookie Ethan De Groot will return. They will almost definitely be joined by Highlanders current co-captain Ash Dixon, Liam Coltman and Ricky Jackson. At tighthead, it has already been confirmed Jermaine Ainsley will join, presumably meaning Josh Iosefa-Scott will be out. New signing Jeff Thwaites will likely be back, while Siate Tokolahi could also be on his way out. The three young locks, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit will be back, while Jack Whetton’s future is unclear. The back-row contingent has impressed for the men from the south this year, and it is likely that the only two players departing from this area of the field, will be the uncapped duo of Zane Kapeli and Sione Misiloi. In the backs, the inspirational Aaron Smith is signed on until 2022, whilst youngster Folau Fakatava should be back. I believe Kayne Hammington is off contract, although considering he now plays for Otago, one would imagine he will get a new deal. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt will look to continue their blossoming relationship next year, which will likely see the off-contract Bryn Gatland link up at the Chiefs with father Warren. In my opinion, midfield has been a real weak point for the Highlanders since Malakai Fekitoa’s 2017 departure. I think there could be a real shake up on the cards. The powerful Sio Tomkinson is likely to return, whilst utility backs Michael Collins, (who is off contract,) Ngane Punivai and Scott Gregory may make a move infield. I have heard Tei Walden is not going to be offered a new deal, while it would not be a shock if Thomas Umaga-Jensen heads for pastures new. Most intriguing is Rob Thompson. Thompson has been a fan favourite down south, but ever since a wonderful 2018 season, he has spiralled downwards. His poor performance against the Chiefs, was a large part of why the Highlanders were down by so much, and it saw him hooked at halftime. Michael Collins moved into the midfield and linked the attack in a way not seen since Fekitoa’s departure. Thompson is off contract and turns 29 this August. The rumour is he moving to the Bay of Plenty, so a move to the Chiefs to pair him up with Anton Lienert-Brown might be a possibility. Finally, the outside back contingent for 2021 looks pretty clear cut. Jona Nareki will look to build on a promising start, whilst a good performance against the Blues this Sunday, should be enough to see Josh McKay secure a new deal. Nehe Milner-Skudder, Connor Garden-Bachop and Vilimoni Koroi are also already signed up. Of the other Highlanders outside backs, Sam Gilbert may secure a deal if he can prove he is fit after his horror ACL injury. I am sure the side will be keen to avoid another Milner-Skudder situation from this year. It would be expected that Tevita Nabura, Chris Kuindrani and Timaa Fainga’anuku depart.

WHAT THEY NEED

From my research and my hunches, I believe that the Highlanders, may be on the lookout for a new tighthead prop, a lock, two loose forwards, a first five and two midfielders. Dependant on a few other factors, they may also be in the market for an outside back, a halfback and a hooker.

THE SEARCH

First of all, I am going to very briefly touch on tighthead prop. This is relatively simple. They will likely either resign Siate Tokolahi, or exciting prospect Saula Ma’u. Ma’u made his debut for Otago last year and was training with the Highlanders until a surgery. Standing at around 6”2 and weighing around 130kg, he is a huge unit, but he is definitely more than just a scrummager. Option: Saula Ma’u

At lock, I have come up with four options. Options one and two are the very inexperienced Will Tucker and Josh Hill. Tucker nearly made his Highlanders debut, after coming in as an injury replacement, he was named on the bench for a match against the Jaguares which ended up being called off due to COVID-19. Hill is a similar player to Josh Dickson, but probably needs to bulk up a bit to play at this level. The other two options are rather unlikely. Due to COVID, it is not entirely impossible that former Highlanders return to New Zealand, two of which being Tom Franklin and Jackson Hemopo. Franklin feels very far-fetched, and almost definitely won’t happen but never say never. Hemopo only signed a one-year deal in Japan, so I believe he may well be able to come back to New Zealand. My issue with Hemopo, is I feel he is more likely to go to another franchise in New Zealand if he was to return. With three young locks already, I think the Highlanders would be better served finding someone slightly older. I am very much keeping my mind open and a good performer from the Mitre 10 Cup, could be the person to take this spot. Option: Will Tucker or a wildcard returnee NZer

Moving into the loose forwards, and both these players won’t be seeing much game time. I felt Shannon Frizzell was a certainty to go overseas in the near future, but COVID has changed that, so with him, Mikaele Tu’u, Ben-Nicholas and Parete they are well served at 8 and 6. They have two good 7s in Hunt and captain Lentjes, which rules out a signing there, except for maybe local lad Slade McDowell. I really struggled to come up with some options in this department, and in all likelihood, these places will be taken by guys who impress in the Mitre 10 Cup. This could mean a strong campaign from Misiloi, could earn him another crack at the whip, while a strong showing from injury replacement Tom Florence could earn him a full-time gig down south. The only other option I have come up with, is once again a left field shout for a returning Highlander. A hero in the eyes of many, I am touting the idea for them to sign 31-year-old, 65 cap Highlander Nasi Manu. Having just left Treviso, he is without a club and has been in Dunedin. Unlikely to play many games, Manu could teach the likes of Mikaele-Tu’u a lot. As we have seen, Zane Kapeli and Sione Misiloi have not taken the field, in fact they have not gone close- especially Kapeli. I would be very much for this. Other options include, Mitch Jacobson, or potentially Dylan Nel and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis dependent on their contracts. As mentioned, someone will stick their hand up in the Mitre 10 Cup and take this spot. Option: Nasi Manu and Tom Florence/M10 Cup Bolter

Into the backs, and to the position that really inspired this article, first five. Many will be saying the Highlanders have three good tens, and that would be correct. Having said that Bryn Gatland is off contract, and a shift to the Chiefs would make sense for all parties. Whilst there are many different options for this one, I am going to talk about two and one will shock you. The first option is Lincoln McClutchie. McClutchie has spent time training down south before and was unfortunate not to pick up a Super Rugby contract this past season. He runs the ball well, which would fit in well down south, so he ticks those boxes. His kicking has been a bit of work on, but with Mitch Hunt looking like the fullback option for now at least, this is less of a problem. The issue with this one, is he probably would fancy himself to get more game time at the Hurricanes or the Chiefs. The second option would be arguably the biggest signing in Highlanders history. He was born in Southland, so he has ties to the franchise. Damian McKenzie. The 25-year-old is one of New Zealand’s best, and is realistically would play fullback, but he could easily fill the spot as the third ten. The man who inspired the article, is settled in Chiefs country, and is signed on until 2021, so why am I touting this. I have heard from a very reliable source, that the Highlanders are chasing him hard and there is interest from McKenzie. The ILT are said to be keen to sponsor the deal, so it seems as though money wouldn’t be an issue. This may well be one for 2022, but if he is going to come in 2022, then I am sure that will involve a new deal with the NZRU and I am almost certain, he could work out a way to change franchises with a new deal. Option: Damian McKenzie and Lincoln McClutchie

The penultimate section is the midfield. With two to three departures, then the Highlanders will probably be looking for one to two midfielders, dependent on whether Rob Thompson stays. My gut feeling is, that the game against the Chiefs will be the beginning of the end for him. Finding midfielders was extremely tough, but to fill the two spots, I have come up with some options. Firstly, I believe the Highlanders could look at a guy like Tanielu Tele’a. Tele’a has not seen too much game time at the Blues this year, and with Rieko Ioane nailing down the centre spot, his opportunities look like they will be hard to come by. He certainly has potential, and maybe just maybe he could be the next Fekitoa? I have not seen a lot of him, but distribution seems to be a bit of an issue for him, and considering Rob Thompson is on the chopping block is more or less for that reason, this could be a real red flag. The Highlanders are unlikely to move for him at this time. The other option is Alex Nankivell. Nankivell is off contract as far as I can tell, and he could well be the glue the Highlanders a looking for. Dependable, a good ball runner, good distribution, more or less everything the Highlanders have been looking for. At just 23, he has time on his side, and he could be a great option. This comes with a caveat though- fitness. Nankivell has struggled with injuries, but as he hits his peak years, one might hope he can stay fit. Once again with this one, the Mitre 10 Cup is probably where they find their man, as they really don’t want to be left with an average option.

Option: Alex Nankivell and a Standout M10 Cup

Finally, I am going to looks at the maybes. A hooker, a halfback and an outside back. At hooker, if Ash Dixon decides to earn a quick buck in Japan, then Kianu Kereru-Symes, who has spent time in Dunedin training, could be an option, or the young Flynn Thomas. Thomas was very highly rated but has stunted slightly. He has been playing club rugby in Dunedin this year. I feel Hammington is very unlikely to go, but if he did, then I think that the Highlanders may well look to the young James Arscott. Arscott has been training with the Highlanders for the past couple of the years, and he is likely to see game time with Otago this year. Finally, when looking at outside backs, I think Sam Gilbert will probably get the contract regardless of fitness, especially if Damian McKenzie signs. If McKenzie was to sign, then another first five might be in the offing, which is where McClutchie comes in.

THE FINDINGS

Putting everything I think, I know and I learnt togtether, I think that Josh Iosefa-Scott, Siate Tokolahi, Jack Whetton, Zane Kapeli, Sione Misiloi, Bryn Gatland, Tei Walden, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Rob Thompson, Tima Fainga’nuku, Tevita Nabura and Chris Kuindrani will leave, a total of 12 departures. Of the twelve, I feel that there is every chance Tokolahi and Thompson do stay, all be it on one-year deals. I would also say there is a small chance Misiloi, Umaga-Jensen and Gatland return, but I am 100% confident the other seven will depart. Replacing these players, could be Jermaine Ainsley, Saula Ma’u, Will Tucker, Nasi Manu, a standout flanker from the Mitre Ten Cup, Alex Nankivell, a standout second five from the Mitre 10 Cup and last but certainly not least Damian McKenzie

2021 SQUAD

The potential 2021 Highlanders squad: Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Ethan De Groot, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson, Jermaine Ainsley, Jeff Thwaites, Saula Ma’u, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Will Tucker, Shannon Frizzell, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, James Lentjes, Jesse Parete, Tom Florence, Nasi Manu, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt, Damian McKenzie, Lincoln McClutchie, Sio Tomkinson, Alex Nankivell, M10 Cup Standout Second Five, Scott Gregory, Ngane Punivai, Michael Collins, Connor Garden-Bachop, Jona Nareki, Josh McKay, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert.

The next part of this series will be the Crusaders, so make sure to follow me @Nicholasfriedl3 on twitter to know when it has been posted.

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