This week, we look at the Highlanders, who won their first title in 2015, defeating the Hurricanes 21-14. This is the side that started the final.
15. Ben Smith (co-captain)
A Highlanders stalwart, born and bred in Dunedin, Ben Smith burst onto the professional rugby scene playing for Otago in the National Provincial Championship in 2008. Six months later he made his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders. It was a big year for the fullback, who went on to debut for the All Blacks against Italy on the 2009 end of year tour. Sound on defence and Mr Reliable under the high ball, Smith went on to play 153 games for the Highlanders and was instrumental in their championship-winning season as co-captain alongside Nasi Manu. Smith played 84 Tests for the All Blacks and was a star in their 2015 Rugby World Cup win and also won Commonwealth Games gold with the All Blacks Sevens in 2010. The 33 year-old finished up with New Zealand Rugby at the conclusion of last year’s World Cup and has been playing for French club Pau in the French Top 14.
14. Waisake Naholo
You can’t hear Waisake Naholo’s name without wanting to sing the famous “WAI-SAKE NA-HOLO” chant. Born in Fiji, Naholo was only 18 when made his provincial debut for Wanganui in the 2009 Heartland Championship, while still at Wanganui City College. He made the New Zealand Under 20 side in 2011 and was a standout for Taranaki in 2014 when they claimed the ITM Cup Premiership title. The Highlanders snapped him up for the 2015 season and while he was one of the competition’s top try-scorers, more importantly, he scored the southerners last try in the final against the Hurricanes. That same year, the flying winger debuted for the All Blacks against Argentina. The 29 year-old played 26 All Blacks Tests and confirmed at the start of 2019 that he would be joining London Irish. He got his first start in the English Premiership competition in November last year.
13. Malakai Fekitoa
A key member of the Highlanders title-winning side, Malakai Fekitoa was born in Tonga, but came to New Zealand at 16 to attend Wesley College on a rugby scholarship. Fekitoa made an impression on the New Zealand rugby scene when he was 18, voted player of the tournament by Sir Gordon Tietjens at the National Sevens in 2011. The physical midfielder and strong defender played every game for Auckland in the ITM Cup in 2012. Fekitoa made his Super Rugby debut for the Blues in 2013, playing just one game against France, before being released from his contract. He joined the Highlanders in 2014 and after a solid Super Rugby season that year, he made his All Blacks debut against England at Eden Park. Fekitoa was part of the 2015 World Cup winning side, and then headed to France in 2017 to join Toulon. He is now plying his trade in the UK at Wasps alongside fellow Highlanders teammate Lima Sopoaga.
12. Richard Buckman
The man they call ‘Barracuda’, Richard Buckman is a handy player given his versatility. Able to play in the midfield, fullback or on the wing, Buckman joined the Highlanders in 2014. He became a mainstay for the Dunedin Super Rugby club and is a proud Hawke’s Bay Magpie, having made his provincial debut in 2008. Injury cursed Buckman throughout 2018 and 2019 and he’s now playing in Japan, where he’s linked up with several former Highlanders at the Kobelco Steelers.
11. Patrick Osborne
Fijian-born winger Patrick Osborne began his professional rugby career at Canterbury in 2010, where he went onto play over 40 games for the provincial side, whilst winning five NPC titles. His form in 2011 earnt him a Super Rugby call-up to the Crusaders in 2012, however, he never played a game and in 2013 he found himself at the champion-winning Chiefs. Osborne found his feet at the Highlanders and played over 50 games for the southern club. He’s donned the Fijian jersey and joined the Kubota Spears in Japan’s Top League at the end of 2017.
10. Lima Sopoaga
A very skilful pivot, Lima Sopoaga guided the Highlanders to their first title in 2015. He scored the most points out of any Super Rugby player in 2015, with 191 points. At the age of 19, Sopoaga made his NPC debut for Wellington and in that same year, was part of the New Zealand Under 20 side that won the Junior World Cup in Italy. Sopoaga played four seasons for Wellington before switching to the Southland Stags in 2014. He followed former Wellington coach Jamie Joseph to the Highlanders in 2011 and made his Super Rugby debut that year. It wasn’t until 2015 that Sopoaga made his All Blacks debut, a memorable one against the Springboks at Ellis Park, where he scored 12 points in a narrow win. He played 16 Tests between 2015 and 2017 before heading overseas to play for the Wasps in the English Premiership at the end of the 2018 Super Rugby season.
9. Aaron Smith
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest halfbacks, Aaron Smith made his Highlanders debut nine years ago in 2011. He’s already got 137 Highlanders caps to his name and after signing on as an apprentice to Jimmy Cowan, he’s been the first-choice No. 9 since 2012. Smith’s bullet-like pass is widely regarded as one of the best in world rugby. He was part of the New Zealand Under 20 side that won the inaugural Junior World Cup in Wales in 2008, and he made his Maori All Blacks debut in 2010. The Manawatu halfback made his All Blacks debut against Ireland in 2012 and he’s closing in on 100 All Blacks Tests, currently on 92.
8. Nasi Manu (co-captain)
Nasi Manu was the proud co-captain of the Highlanders throughout their successful 2015 campaign. Born in Christchurch, Manu started his Super Rugby career at the Crusaders in 2008, having debuted for Canterbury in the NPC a year earlier. The No 8 spent two seasons with the Crusaders before joining the Highlanders in 2010. Described as a fearless player and inspiring leader, lifting the Super Rugby trophy alongside Ben Smith was Manu’s last act with the club having already signed with Scottish club Edinburgh at the start of the year. Manu played two seasons with Edinburgh before switching to Italian club Benetton Treviso. In 2018, Manu was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatment. He remarkably returned to rugby last year and played for Tonga at the World Cup in Japan.
7. James Lentjes
The successful 2015 campaign was James Lentjes first season with the Highlanders. A number of injuries to their loose forward stocks saw the 29 year-old get a call up from the NPC. Hailing from the Taieri club in Dunedin, Lentjes is a proud Otago and Highlanders man. He’s a mobile loose forward and a powerful ball runner and was all set for a strong Super Rugby season as skipper, but he was dealt a cruel blow in Round five this year. Lentjes suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle and required surgery, keeping him out of rugby for up to nine months.
6. Elliot Dixon
Though controversial, Elliot Dixon scored the Highlanders opening try of the 2015 final against the Hurricanes. He was in impressive form for the Highlanders throughout that season, featuring in every game and topping the tackle count for his side. Born and raised in Christchurch, Dixon attended St Bede’s College before shifting to Southland in 2010. By the time he was first selected for the All Blacks in 2016, he had already played 50 provincial matches for the Stags and well over 50 games for the Highlanders. Dixon spent nine seasons with the Highlanders, notching up over 100 appearances. He moved to Japan in October last year to take up a two-year deal with the Ricoh Black Rams.
5. Mark Reddish
A real work horse in the second row, Mark Reddish was educated at Rongotai College in Wellington, where he made his 1st XV debut at a very young age. In 2009 he made his debut for the Wellington Lions and two years later he got his break with the Hurricanes in Super Rugby. Reddish helped the Highlanders to their inaugural title in his first year with the club, playing up against his old side in the final. In 2016, Reddish moved to the northern hemisphere and linked up with London club Harlequins. However, he only made five appearances before being forced to retire for medical reasons after suffering a concussion. Reddish is now back in Wellington, working as a builder.
4. Alex Ainley
Alex Ainley’s career started out in 2006 with the newly formed Tasman Makos in the ITM Cup and he went onto captain the side. During off seasons he would play in Parma in Europe and then in 2009 he signed on with Japanese Top League side, the Mitsubishi Dynaboars. Ainley spent three seasons playing in Japan, before returning to New Zealand and re-joining the Makos. He signed with the Highlanders at the age of 33 and was rewarded his Super Rugby debut in South Africa. Ainley remained with the Highlanders until 2018, having played four seasons with the club. At the age of 38 and after 10 seasons with his beloved Tasman Makos, Ainley and his family moved from Nelson to Tauranga where he played his 100th Mitre 10 Cup game for Bay of Plenty. He brought the milestone up in last year’s Championship final in which Bay of Plenty defeated Hawke’s Bay.
3. Josh Hohneck
A versatile prop who can play on both sides of the scrum, Josh Hohneck joined the Highlanders in their successful 2015 season. Having played provincial rugby for Waikato and Bay of Plenty, as well as Super Rugby with the Chiefs, Hohneck also featured for the Maori All Blacks in 2015. Hohneck played two seasons with the Highlanders before moving to the northern hemisphere to play for Gloucester in the English Premiership. Hohneck still plays for Gloucester and he’s played over 100 games for the club.
2. Liam Coltman
Liam Coltman’s in his seventh season with the Highlanders, having been elevated from the wider training squad in 2013. The powerful and smiley hooker brought up his 100th Highlanders appearance last year and he’s become a consistent performer for the southern club over the years. Coltman was born in Taranaki, but has gone onto represent Otago in provincial rugby, playing 67 NPC games. He was named in the All Blacks squad for the 2016 end of year tour, making his debut against Italy in Rome. Coltman was also part of the 2010 New Zealand Under 20 side that defended its title at the Junior World Championships. The 30 year-old has become a mainstay in the All Blacks over the last 18 months, alongside Dane Coles and Codie Taylor.
1. Brendon Edmonds
Described as a powerful scrummager with a high work rate, prop Brendon Edmonds debuted for the Highlanders in 2015. Hailing from Hawke’s Bay, Edmonds played close to 50 games for the Magpies. He made his Super Rugby debut for the Hurricanes in 2014, after being called in as an injury replacement. Edmonds featured for the Maori All Blacks in 2015/16 and became a first-choice loosehead for the Highlanders in 2016. He was in for a strong campaign before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He’s since helped out with the scrum coaching of the Magpies and is also assistant coach at Havelock North.