Super Rugby season review: The Highlanders

10:52 am on 26 June 2019

Analysis - It was a season of unfulfilled promise for the Highlanders.

Waisake Naholo.

Highlanders and All Black wing Waisake Naholo. Photo: Photosport

Their best rugby was as good as anyone's but just as likely to be followed something inaccurate or soft, as their 2019 record of six wins, three draws and seven losses would attest.

Games that could, and should, have been won ended in draws or narrow defeats, for the simple reason that someone dropped a kickoff or didn't properly execute an exit play.

Still, the Highlanders were able to qualify for the quarterfinals, where their eventual 38-14 loss to the Crusaders was more of a contest than the final score would suggest.

Best performance

The week 13 win over the Jaguares was right up there.

Yes, referee Ben O'Keeffe had a fairly significant say, but it was still a brave and, at times, impressive performance from the victors.

The Jaguares came to New Zealand in decent form, and went on to beat the Hurricanes in Wellington the next week. That the Highlanders were able to repel such a spirited and robust challenge suggested their quest for a quarterfinal berth might not be in vain.

The final score of 32-27 was rather emblematic of the season, though. At various times the Highlanders looked to have the game won, only to allow the Jaguares to creep back into contention.

Worst performance

It wasn't an amazing start to the season, with away losses to the Rebels and Hurricanes during the first month.

At that stage, though, you still assumed things would come right. The doggedness and grit you associate with Highlanders sides remained in evidence and, with a bit of luck, those defeats could've been wins.

It was when they lost 33-26 to the Blues at Eden Park that you wondered about the side. History suggested they ought to prevail in a game of that sort yet it was the Blues - a team who are relative strangers to winning - who did.

That was the moment you suspected this could be a Highlanders team in decline.

Player of the year

Hooker Liam Coltman was terrific.

Tom Franklin, Luke Whitelock, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax and Josh Ioane all had good seasons, but the sustained excellence of Coltman really stood out.

Liam Coltman of the Highlanders in action, during the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Jaguares

Liam Coltman was one of the best New Zealand players in this season. Photo: Photosport

Along with people such as Patrick Tuipulotu at the Blues, Hurricanes loose forward Ardie Savea and the Chiefs' Anton Lienert-Brown, Coltman was actually one of the best-performed New Zealand players across the board.

Good with ball-in-hand and a decent defender, Coltman's work at the breakdown was often outstanding.

Most improved player

Centre Rob Thompson got better the longer the season went on.

Not every player can be world class. No matter how hard they work or how diligent there are around things such as recovery and diet, they're only ever going to be a good or sometimes very good player.

You look at Thompson, who's not a big man nor blessed with lightning speed, and see someone that's getting the most out of their ability.

He might kick on from here, he might not. But what you can be sure of is Thompson will never stop trying.

End of an era

Sadly, you can't review this season without cataloguing the virtual cast of thousands who are leaving the franchise.

Ben Smith, Marty Banks, Richard Buckman, Tevita Li, Elliot Dixon, Waisake Naholo, Matt Faddes, Liam Squire, Whitelock, Hemopo and Franklin are all off overseas, while Lomax will join the Hurricanes. That really does represent the guts of a squad that's not laden with talent to start with.

Many of those men were around for the historic 2015 title win and remain hugely influential and consistent performers. The whole competition will be poorer for their absence.

Ben Smith.

The Highlanders are saying good-bye to Ben Smith and a cast of other first-choice players now that the 2019 season is over. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Casting forward

The return of Tony Brown to the coaching staff is interesting and timely.

Canterbury men Aaron Mauger, Mark Hammett and Glenn Delaney have run the cutter in recent times, with Brown now coming in to replace the latter.

How the jobs are divided up from here, and who gets what title, will be fascinating, but the main thing is that Brown is both a favourite Otago and Highlanders son and an accomplished and relatively experienced head coach.

They'll need all the good will his return should generate - plus his obvious nous - during what could be a tricky 2020 campaign.

Mark out of 10 for 2019

A six. They qualified for the playoffs and that has to be the benchmark for New Zealand sides.

Not the deepest squad, All Blacks rests and injuries affected the Highlanders a bit, but the greatest absence this year was in nature. The team just weren't clinical enough and let too many winnable games get away from them.

Whether that was down to individuals, or gameplans and coaching, is hard to know. When first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga was still around, the Highlanders were a side who kicked and chased a lot, backing their defence to create errors. This year the defence didn't seem as good and there appeared less kicking too.

So much of what the team did in 2019 was good - and so many individuals enjoyed excellent moments - but that was often let down by unfortunate lapses.

*Hamish Bidwell is a contributor to RNZ. He has previously worked at The Northern Advocate, Gisborne Herald, Hawke's Bay Today, The Press, The Dominion Post and Stuff.

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