Home: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Last Season: 8
Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson (out for season due to injury - replaced by Nathan Vella), Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Jeff Thwaites, Ethan De Groot, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Jack Whetton, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, James Lentjes (C), Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Shannon Frizell, Sione Misiloi, Zane Kapeli, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Jesse Parete.
Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava, Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Scott Gregory, Ngane Punivai, Jona Nareki, Tevita Nabura, Josh McKay, Michael Collins, Chris Kuridrani, Connor Garden-Bachop (out for season due to injury-replaced by Lotima Fainga'anuku).
Game breaker: Shannon Frizell
Loose forward strength has always been a quality associated with the southernmost team in the competition and having been on the fringes of more permanent inclusion on the blindside of the All Blacks scrum, Frizell should have plenty of opportunities to push his cause with the Highlanders set to benefit. Having lost Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon and Jackson Hemopo, there will be plenty of pressure on the Highlanders to quickly develop the traditional area of strength in the side. Frizell with James Lentjes and Dillon Hunt alongside him should go a long way to ensuring quality play in this department while offering his own skills with ball in hand.
Key signing: Jesse Parete
The Bay of Plenty hard man should thrive in the Highlanders' atmosphere. An unrelenting character, who can push things to the edge, he has a massive chance to boost his career by fitting in quickly to the Highlanders' loose forward machine. As has been seen in recent years, the quality and chances that Highlanders loosies have enjoyed have been plentiful and it is up to Parete to seize his chance. That means quickly getting into contributing to the team ethos and playing a strong defensive role for the side. He has some excellent people around him in the pack and if able to blend in, the Highlanders should benefit.
Returning veteran: Aaron Smith
Retaining the services of one of the best halfbacks in the world is a bonus, especially in a post-World Cup season. So often personnel are lost but Smith's return is a welcome boost, especially with his commitment to seeing the side continue to advance. Reduced experience in the pack will increase the pressure to ensure Smith is able to work with quality ball and to allow his outsides to exercise good judgment. That will be especially important for the likes of Josh Ioane, who has the chance to build on the international exposure he enjoyed in 2019. Smith will be a key leader for the side.
Adapting to changeovers in personnel is something the Highlanders have become used to but they have looked to their future in 2020 by securing a core of younger players capable of building the side once again into a formidable force. Losing the likes of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock and Tom Franklin does leave the side down on experience. However, a combination of new blood and the players developed in recent seasons has within it the chance for the side to reach new levels and there is an excitement factor associated with players like Ngane Punivai, Jona Nareki, Tevita Nabura and Josh McKay. Turning that to advantage will be crucial as will the benefit to the team of former coach Tony Brown working as an assistant with the side.