The Highlanders have invested heavily in local talent to revive their fortunes, signing no fewer than five rising stars on long-term deals from 2024 onwards.
Halfback Nathan Hastie (Otago), first-five Cameron Millar (Otago), center Jake Te Hiwi (Otago), No 6 / lock Oliver Haig (Otago) and No 7 Hayden Michaels (Southland) have all committed to the Dunedin-based club on three-year deals, as a ‘golden generation’ of players comes through the ranks in the Deep South.
Those five players have all represented the New Zealand under-20s side after coming through either the Highlanders’ high performance program or the Highlanders under-20s team, and are seen as evidence of better alignment between the Highlanders and the region’s three provinces – Otago, Southland and North Otago.
“Our high performance group have done a good job identifying and helping nurture the young talent from within our own regions,” said Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark in a statement.
“They’ve been working closely with Otago, Southland, and North Otago to provide a development pathway for players and it’s great that this group will realize their dream of becoming Super Rugby players. I am sure there will be more to follow. “
Otago Rugby boss Richard Kinley welcomed the Highlanders’ long-term thinking in signing the quintet of youngsters.
“These young players have put in the hard work and as a result, the local high performance pathway has rewarded them,” he said.
“It is especially pleasing to see the aligned approach and early commitment from the Highlanders to these players. It’s a real win for everyone to be able to keep them in the region where they can continue to grow and develop.
“All five players will continue their development in 2023 working with their respective provincial unions and the Highlanders’ high performance staff.”
Rugby Southland chief executive Steve Mitchell echoed those thoughts. “It’s great to see the Highlanders support local talent and provide a realistic pathway to higher honors for our identified players,” he said.
The Highlanders’ high performance program is run by Kane Jury, and has already produced three Super Rugby players in lock Fabian Holland, loose forward Sean Withy and prop Saula Ma’u.
New Zealand under-20s fullback / wing Finn Hurley (Otago), Highlanders under-20s hooker Jack Taylor (Southland), Highlanders under 20s backs Ajay Faleafaga and Jeremiah Asi (both Otago) and Highlanders under-20s loose forward Will Stodart (Otago) are also regarded as good chances to join the Highlanders in coming years as they develop.
Of the five players signed on Tuesday, Hastie and Millar should have realistic chances of getting meaningful game time for the Highlanders in 2024.
Millar, a well-balanced No 10 with a superb kicking game, played strongly for Otago in their preseason demolition of Southland last Friday, forming a productive playmaking combination with Highlanders fullback Sam Gilbert.
Meanwhile, Stuff can also confirm that powerhouse lock Pari Pari Parkinson will return to the Highlanders next season.
Parkinson’s Super Rugby Pacific season was wiped out by the serious knee injury he suffered playing for Tasman last year, and he won’t feature for the Mako in the upcoming NPC as he completes his rehabilitation.
However, the 25-year-old should be able to complete a full preseason for the Highlanders and be available for the start of Super Rugby Pacific in 2023.