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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

Super Rugby Preview
Highlanders don't know what went wrong - Growden
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
February 14, 2014
Liam Coltman, Brad Thorn and Ben Smith are key men in Otago © Scrum.com
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Highlanders' Super Rugby 2014 Squad

  • Josh Bekhuis, Shane Christie, Liam Coltman, Matias Diaz, Elliot Dixon, Gareth Evans, Ma'afu Fia, Tom Franklin, Kane Hames, John Hardie, Jarrad Hoeata, TJ Ioane, Chris King, Nasi Manu, Brayden Mitchell, Brad Thorn, Joe Wheeler, Kurt Baker, Phil Burleigh, Jason Emery, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne, Hayden Parker, Buxton Popoalii, Willie Ripia, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Winston Stanley, Fumiaki Tanaka, Shaun Treeby, Frae Wilson.
  • Highlanders' Super Rugby 2014 fixtures

The Highlanders seem perched on a ledge after a squad featuring 12 All Blacks past or present recorded a season of unwanted franchise records: most games lost (13), most points conceded (496), most tries conceded (55) and worst points differential (-122). They are now without a number of high-profile Test players so the pressure will be on coach Jamie Jospeh, who was surely fortunate to keep his job after 2013. Greg Growden says the results last year suggested crook coaching, a lack of morale within the playing group, or too many has-beens in the squad; the has-beens are no longer there, but he thinks the results will remain the same.

Last season: 14th overall, fifth in New Zealand Conference; the Highlanders endured their worst season in history, losing their first eight matches before ending the season with the third-worst defensive record in the competition. A rumoured lack of team cohesion was blamed often for the side's inability to find the form of previous seasons after a big-name recruiting drive had led many pundits to tip big things for them, and certainly things looked bad when they squandered a 24-point lead against Melbourne Rebels in their final game of the year.

Jeff Wilson said the Highlanders in 2013 "promised so much yet failed to deliver", describing them as "a team laden with talent but faced a number of challenges throughout the season, [they] never found the chemistry required of a champion team". Read more ...

Russell Barwick and Greg Growden look at the New Zealand Super Rugby conference

Key Man: Ben Smith has played 72 games for the Highlanders since making his Super Rugby debut in 2009, against the Brumbies, and he returns in 2014 after a career year in which he was named New Zealand Super Rugby Player of the Year 2013. The utility has also played 26 Tests for the All Blacks, and he will be leading the side as co-captain with Nasi Manu. He scored six tries and tallied 1251 run metres last season to confirm his importance to the team.

Key Stat: For all that went wrong in attack and defence last season, nothing was so bad as their discipline: the Highlanders received a competition-high 11 yellow cards and one red to gift an almighty advantage to rivals.

Rising Star: Argentina tight-head Matias Diaz will hope to make the run-on side given the Highlanders now are without Jamie Mackintosh and Tony Woodcock. Signed as one for the future, he has already won six Test caps to suggest he has already arrived.

Super Rugby 2014: Team-by-team

© SANZAR (Image Supplied)

Season Preview: The Highlanders have bombed several opportunities to make finals berths in recent seasons, but they seem able only to dream of such success this season after last year's dredge. With 23 players returning to the side alongside new faces, the Highlanders will hope first and foremost to pull their socks up and display pride in the jumper; that said, it will be very interesting to see how they go without the departed big names and it will not be a total shock to see an improved showing.

Greg Growden's verdict: What was going on in Dunedin last year? You looked at the Highlanders squad - chockful of All Blacks - and thought they could do anything. Instead they did absolutely nothing, finishing an embarrassing 14th. That result suggested the coaching was crook, there was a lack of morale within the playing group, or the Highlanders had too many has-beens in the squad. Not surprisingly, there has been a massive change in personnel, with Tamati Ellison, Andrew Hore, Jamie Mackintosh, Ma'a Nonu, Colin Slade and Tony Woodcock moving on. It was a triumph that Ben Smith was still able to fire, and be the form fullback of the 2013 tournament, when so many around him failed to contribute. Hope he gets better support this season.

Tip: Last in New Zealand Conference. Finish: Twelth.


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