Head coach Aaron Mauger has left the Highlanders after three years with the Super Rugby franchise.

Mauger replaced Tony Brown in the top job at the Dunedin-based side in August 2017, but his tenure has come to an end after his contract was not renewed.

The 39-year-old departs on the back of a disappointing Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign in which the Highlanders won just three matches.

Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said: "Aaron has focused on improving and developing players and, in that regard, he can be very proud of his efforts and we thank him for everything he has done for the club.

"As a young coach with a long career ahead, we wish him and his family all the best for the next chapter of his coaching career."

Mauger said that he can have no complaints over the decision.

"Results are key to proving the quality of the structures you have put in place as a head coach," he said. "As our on-field results during my tenure haven't been at the level we've all aspired to, it’s the head coach who must take responsibility for that."

Clark added the Highlanders are in no rush to name Mauger's successor.

"We have a little bit of time before we need to make a final decision on our coaching structure for 2021. We are fortunate we have quality coaches in Tony Brown, Clarke Dermody and Riki Flutey still contracted," he said.

"Over the next short period we will be reviewing our coaching structure and who and how many we add to our current group will depend on availability and our desire to get the balance of our coaching group right."

A strong second half helped the Highlanders beat the Hurricanes 38-21 in the final game of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

A change to coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand forced Sunday's clash between the Blues and champions Crusaders to be cancelled, however, the Highlanders' meeting with the Hurricanes went ahead behind closed doors on Saturday.

Two tries apiece saw the Highlanders and Hurricanes – who had three tries disallowed – level 14-14 at half-time without a crowd in Dunedin.

Vince Aso and Jamie Booth crossed over for the Hurricanes, while Ngane Punivai and Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon responded prior to the interval.

A Josh Ioane penalty and Michael Collins' try gave the Highlanders a 10-point lead early in the second half, before they were awarded a penalty try as Hurricanes loose forward Ardie Savea received a yellow card for a professional foul.

The Highlanders made the most of their numerical advantage after Mitch Hunt sprinted away to cross over, while Peter Umaga-Jensen claimed a consolation try for the Hurricanes with seven minutes remaining.

With the loss, the Hurricanes saw their five-game winning streak ended as they missed the chance to leapfrog the Blues into second place in the standings, while the Highlanders finished fourth in the five-team competition.

Sunday's Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Blues and the Crusaders has been cancelled following a change to coronavirus restrictions in Auckland.

The decision comes after the government in New Zealand confirmed Auckland will remain at stage three of the country's COVID-19 protocols for 12 days, while the rest of the nation is at stage two.

Consequently, the fixture – which was scheduled to be part of the final round of the competition at Eden Park – will be scored as a draw with both teams awarded two points.

The match between the Highlanders and the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium will go ahead without fans in attendance, with the kick-off time brought forward by four hours to 3:05pm local time to meet rules on teams flying in and out of cities on the same day to limit public reaction.

Blues CEO Andrew Hore said: "10 weeks ago we never thought we'd even have a competition, let alone one with fans. 

"But instead we got nine weeks of incredible rugby, with three amazing home games and massive crowds. 

"While this news is disappointing, we need to take a step back and be grateful for what we got, what it meant to our players, our sponsors and, most importantly, to our fans."

Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge added: "Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa has been a fantastic display of unity and togetherness for all New Zealanders. 

"While it would have been fitting to finish our campaign in front of a full house at Eden Park, I think the rugby community can be incredibly proud of what we have collectively achieved over the last 10 weeks, and will understand that this decision has been made in the best interests of New Zealanders.

"On behalf of the Crusaders, I want to thank all of our fans for their incredible support throughout the 2020 season."

Chris Lendrum, New Zealand Rugby's general manager of professional Rugby and performance, said he understood the decision.

"It's fantastic that the Highlanders-Hurricanes game can go ahead as one final celebration of Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa," he said.

"On the flipside, we're obviously disappointed that the Blues-Crusaders match is off, but we all understand and support the government's decision around this.

"Both teams have played outstanding rugby throughout the competition in front of packed crowds and, on behalf of New Zealand rugby, we want to thank all the fans for their support for not only those two teams, but all five of our Super teams. It's been incredible."

The Crusaders wrapped up the title last weekend after coming from behind to beat the Highlanders 32-22 at a sold-out Orangetheory Stadium. 

The Crusaders clinched the Super Rugby Aotearoa title after coming from behind to beat the Highlanders 32-22 on Sunday.

An expectant crowd at a sold-out Orangetheory Stadium appeared set for disappointment until George Bridge crossed twice in three second-half minutes to completely alter the complexion of the game.

Braydon Ennor, back from a foot injury, scored the sealer five minutes from the end to ensure the reigning champions can relax going into next weekend's final-round clash with the second-placed Blues.

The Highlanders had frustrated their hosts for much of the first hour after Jona Nareki added an intercept try to Shannon Frizell's shock second-minute opener.

Richie Mo'unga touched down between those tries and reduced the margin to four points at half-time with a second successful penalty attempt.

Bottom of the New Zealand conference, the Highlanders continued to spoil the party after the interval as Josh McKay denied Bryn Hall a certain try before the excellent Josh Ioane created a chance for Michael Collins to dive over.

But the tide turned just as the Crusaders were getting desperate, with 25-year-old back Bridge put through twice in quick succession.

All momentum shifted to the 10-time Super Rugby champions and they wrapped up top spot when Ennor crossed in the closing stages.

The Blues remain in the hunt for the Super Rugby Aotearoa title after claiming a hard-fought 32-21 victory over the Highlanders.

Sunday's bonus-point win at Forsyth-Barr Stadium moved the Blues to 22 points, just two points adrift of Super Rugby leaders the Crusaders with two rounds remaining.

The Blues produced a physically dominant performance to claim the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for the first time since 2011 – a trophy awarded in memory of former Blues and Highlanders head coach Gordon Hunter who passed away from cancer in 2002.

Finlay Christie was a key contributor, scoring a try in each half to inspire the Blues away to the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Blues raced to a 12-0 lead courtesy of tries from Akira Ioane and Christie before the Highlanders responded via Josh Ioane's penalty and an Ash Dixon try to cut the deficit to two points.

The Highlanders moved 13-12 ahead following a controversial review, which saw Blues prop Karl Tu'inukuafe's try overturned, instead penalised for being offside.

But the Highlanders' lead was short-lived as TJ Faiane scored straight after the restart to make it 17-13 in favour of the Blues, who proceeded to claim a 24-16 half-time advantage via Ioane's penalty and Ofa Tuungafasi's try.

Christie added his second try of the match just three minutes into the second half before Beauden Barrett's penalty gave the visiting Blues a 32-16 cushion.

The Highlanders rallied and saw Shannon Frizell cross over with four minutes remaining but that is as good as it got.

Seven Highlanders players will be sanctioned by the club for antisocial behaviour during a party at an apartment in Queenstown over the weekend. 

Members of the Highlanders squad took advantage of a Super Rugby Aotearoa bye week by booking a weekend at the Glebe Apartments. 

There were multiple complaints about the noise coming from the property, where a small group of people who the players had met earlier on Friday evening were also present. 

Police were called and a man was arrested before being charged with wilful damage and disorderly behaviour. 

The Highlanders on Monday released a statement confirming no players are facing police action, while the club has apologised to the general manager of Glebe Apartments. 

Highlanders CEO Roger Clark said: "From our investigation, we can confirm that no damage at the apartments was caused by any Highlanders player. We can also confirm that no Highlanders player is facing any action from the police. 

"Having said that, we're extremely disappointed that some of our players' antisocial behaviour forced guests to endure a disturbed night. As a club we apologise unreservedly to those guests involved. 

"For the Glebe management and police to be called demonstrates a clear lack of respect for others and this is well below the standards we expect from our players whether assembled as a team or enjoying downtime together. 

"Our messaging to the players is very clear: you are always a Highlander and as such we expect good behaviour at all times. 

"Now that the matter has been investigated the players involved will be sanctioned by the club and the entire team will be reminded of their responsibilities around behaviour." 

 

The Highlanders produced a stunning comeback to edge the Chiefs 33-31 in a Super Rugby Aotearoa thriller on Sunday.

Sio Tomkinson crossed for a late try at FMG Stadium Waikato and Mitch Hunt converted to secure the Highlanders' victory.

The Chiefs had opened up a 31-7 lead, only to concede 26 unanswered points to slump to 0-5 in New Zealand's domestic competition.

The Highlanders improved to 2-3 after the remarkable victory.

It was a win that looked unlikely as the Chiefs made a red-hot start, dominating the opening 22 minutes.

Lachlan Boshier, Anton Lienert-Brown and Bradley Slater crossed for the Chiefs as they charged into a 24-0 lead.

Highlanders centre Rob Thompson and Chiefs flanker Sam Cane were both yellow-carded in the opening half-hour, a Marino Mikaele-Tu'u try boosting the visitors' chances.

Just three minutes into the second half and Slater's second try helped the Chiefs into a 31-7 lead as they looked on track for a first win.

Hunt and Aaron Smith scored tries but the Highlanders appeared to have left their comeback too late.

But Jona Nareki scored in the 75th minute and the Highlanders completed their comeback when Smith threw a pass for Tomkinson to cross from close range, with Hunt securing the win with his conversion.

The Hurricanes made it back-to-back wins in Super Rugby Aotearoa with a 17-11 victory over the Highlanders on Sunday.

A dominant start in Wellington helped set up the Hurricanes' win as they scored the first 17 points of the game.

The Hurricanes moved into third on the table with two wins from four games, while the Highlanders have lost three of their opening four.

They broke the game open either side of half-time, with TJ Perenara crossing for the first try in the 28th minute.

The Hurricanes took a 12-0 lead into the break, Jacobus van Wyk crashing over on the right wing after a long pass from Jordie Barrett.

Devan Flanders went over to make it 17-0 to put the Hurricanes in complete control eight minutes into the second half.

Aaron Smith crossed for the Highlanders and Mitch Hunt kicked two penalties – the second coming in the 80th minute – but the Hurricanes held on.

Will Jordan scored another brace of tries as the Crusaders defeated the Highlanders 40-20 to make it three wins from three at the start of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

The wing dotted down twice in last weekend's victory over the Chiefs and he repeated the feat as the Crusaders maintained their 100 per cent start.

After Jordan's first score, the Highlanders hit back with tries from Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai, and despite two Richie Mo'unga penalties, a Mitchell Hunt three-pointer meant the Crusaders trailed at the break.

However, another Hunt penalty was all they had to show for their second-half efforts as the Crusaders pulled away.

Tom Christie crossed twice, either side of a Sevu Reece try, and Jordan capped off the victory with a brilliant breakaway score as he collected his own chip and went over for his second try in the final minute.

The Highlanders were unable to snatch another late win in Super Rugby Aotearoa as the Blues held on for a nail-biting 27-24 victory at Eden Park on Saturday.

Bryn Gatland's late drop goal had seen the Highlanders defeat the Chiefs, coached by his dad Warren, in their opening fixture but, following a bye week, they were unable to repeat the feat in Auckland.

Mitchell Hunt missed a 73rd-minute penalty and then a drop goal as he failed to tie things up for Aaron Mauger's side, who could not make the most of late pressure in the Blues' 22.

Tries arrived in the opening 11 minutes from the Blues' Caleb Clarke, whose grandfather passed away hours prior to kick-off, and the Highlanders' Ash Dixon.

Scott Gregory's kick was then charged down by Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papalii took advantage to cross.

Rieko Ioane made it 22-10 to the Blues before half-time but the same player was sent to the sin bin after the break for an offside infringement. Shannon Frizell added to an impressive try from Hunt to give the Highlanders the lead.

Papalii put the hosts back in front in the 58th minute and Hunt's late miss from the tee spared James Parsons' blushes after he lost the ball while attempting to dive over the ruck to score.

The Blues held firm with some excellent defence, particularly from Sotutu at a late Highlanders line-out, to ensure they retained their 100 per cent record.

Warren Gatland took no comfort from the fact it was his son Bryn who condemned the Chiefs to a dramatic last-gasp defeat on Super Rugby's return.

Buoyant spectators at Forsyth Barr Stadium, where a capacity crowd of over 22,000 gathered after New Zealand lifted coronavirus restrictions, saw replacement full-back Bryn Gatland nail a 79th-minute drop goal to give the Highlanders a thrilling 28-27 victory.

The Chiefs had hit the front for the first time since the opening exchanges a minute earlier when Damian McKenzie split the posts, but Gatland was left to rue his side failing to make the most of two spells against 14 men and plenty of second-half territory.

For now at least, the proud father act is on hold.

"I'm not happy that we lost the game but well done to him," Chiefs coach Gatland told reporters.

"I don't care if he's my son or not. I'll go away and have a look at that but I'm still disappointed in the result."

Bryn Gatland was a late addition to the Highlanders' bench following an injury to Josh Ioane – information he was able to keep from his father until an awkward moment during a family dinner on Friday.

"I found out on Thursday and then had dinner last night with him and Mum," Bryn Gatland said.

"Halfway through dinner he got a text and he looked at me and said, 'Are you on the bench tomorrow?'.

"I didn't want to give the gameplan away!"

The pair then talked somewhat prophetically about how events might unfold.

Former Wales boss Gatland revealed: "We had a joke, and he said, 'I've got a feeling I'm going to come on and kick the winning drop goal'.

"I'm not happy about the result, but he showed a bit of calmness there and he's done that in the past and won games in clutch moments.

"Unfortunately we gave him that opportunity and in fairness he was able to step up to the plate and deliver for them."

Bryn Gatland sensationally claimed the family bragging rights as his drop goal gave the Highlanders a 28-27 win over the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Gatland's father Warren looked set to celebrate victory and spoil the party at a buoyant Forsyth Barr Stadium, where supporters were jubilant throughout – New Zealand's government having lifted restrictions this week after declaring the country no longer had any known active cases of coronavirus.

But Damian McKenzie's close-range drop goal to put the visitors ahead in the 78th minute was met with an immediate response as the Highlanders' replacement full-back nailed a response from 40 yards.

Aaron Mauger's men rose to a special occasion from the off, with Ash Dixon the beneficiary of a well-constructed lineout drive in the 16th minute.

Rob Thompson found a wonderful line off a short pass from scrum-half Aaron Smith to set up his fellow centre Sio Tomkinson – Mitch Hunt's conversion opening up a 15-6 lead for the Highlanders midway through the first half.

The Chiefs found a brilliant response, with Sean Wainui released by Quinn Tupaea to touch down and McKenzie adding the extras from out wide.

Debutant Vilimoni Koroi was sent to the sin bin for a tip tackle on Naitoa Ah Kuoi but number eight Marino Mikaele Tu'u made light of the Highlanders' numerical disadvantage by going over to cap a thrilling half.

After the break, the new rules concerning the breakdown meant frequent penalty infringements and a fracturing of the game's earlier pleasing flow.

Jona Nareki became the second Highlanders man to visit the bin and Anton Lienert-Brown brought the Chiefs to within a point with eight minutes to play.

McKenzie, who finished with 17 points, dragged his conversion wide before responding in style as he looked to have become the matchwinner. However, Gatland Jr had other ideas.

Supporters will be free to attend Super Rugby Aotearoa matches in the opening round after New Zealand lifted coronavirus restrictions.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden confirmed the country will shift to Alert Level One from midnight on Monday, ending restrictions on mass gathering and social-distancing measures.

The country has gone 17 consecutive days without new COVID-19 cases, having imposed strict lockdown measures to counter the highly infectious virus.

Now, Super Rugby Aotearoa will be the first professional rugby competition in the world to have fans return en-masse, with no limit on crowd numbers at stadiums.

The domestic version of Super Rugby, which is taking place in lieu of the proper competition that was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, will get underway when the Highlanders face the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.

The Blues, meanwhile, will host the Hurricanes at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday.

"It is a testament to all New Zealanders that we are in a position to lift restrictions on mass gatherings and it's a massive boost for Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa," New Zealand Rugby (NZR) chief executive Mark Robinson said.

"We're incredibly proud, and grateful, to be the first professional sports competition in the world to be in a position to have our teams play in front of their fans again.

"It's going to be a very special and unique competition and it's fitting that New Zealanders now have a chance to be part of it."

Arden told reporters on Monday: "Our goal was to come out the other side as quickly and as safely as we could. To a place where our borders continue to be our first line of defense but all current rules and restrictions on businesses and services are essentially lifted… Today, 75 days later, we are ready."

Highlanders CEO Roger Clark said: "The world will be watching, and we will be ready to put on a show. Our players, coaches and staff have been working overtime to get Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa ready and to now be able to share the competition with our members and our fans will be a very special occasion."

Meanwhile, Blues counterpart Andrew Hore added: "This is a great boost for the franchise and the region as a whole. It's been a tough time for everyone over the past few months, so to be able to provide some rugby, some entertainment at a world class level and a day out for sports fans and families will be magic."

Golden-point tie-breakers and red-card replacements are among the innovations set to be used when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) announced the rules will come into play for its domestic version of Super Rugby, which is taking place in lieu of the proper competition that was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the changes is the introduction of a golden point, a format used in NRL where the first team to score  – either by try, drop goal or penalty – in the event of a draw in an additional 10-minute period wins the game.

Teams can also bring on a replacement for a player who receives a red card 20 minutes after they have been sent off. The punished player will still be subject to SANZAAR's existing judicial process and cannot return to the field.

NZR head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum said: "We want this competition to look and feel different. 

"We've had great support from our coaches, players and referees to make Super Rugby Aotearoa faster, safer and more exciting than ever before.

"Draws can often leave everyone feeling a little empty and after feedback from our coaches and players we have added the golden point rule. We've seen the excitement it can generate in other codes and we think adds a real edge.

"While players should, and still will be, punished for foul play, red cards can sometimes have too much of an effect on a match. 

"There are no winners when a player is red carded, but paying rugby fans, players and coaches want to see a fair contest. Replacing a player after 20 minutes strikes the right balance."

NZR also said referees will enforce rules at the breakdown more strictly in a bid to create more attacking rugby.

The Highlanders versus the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, will kick off Super Rugby Aotearoa on June 13.

Former New Zealand full-back Ben Smith has denied speculation that he will rejoin the Highlanders.

Smith joined Top 14 side Pau after the Rugby World Cup in Japan last year, bringing an end to his illustrious All Blacks career.

There has been talk the 33-year-old could be on his way back to the Highlanders for the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.

However, Smith says he will be no more than a spectator when his former club resumes action after the Super Rugby season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He posted on Instagram: "Super Rugby Aotearoa looks like a great concept

"I'm looking forward to supporting the Highlanders and watching them give it a crack. I'm not sure where the speculation has come from but I won't be playing in this year's competition.

"I'm looking forward to getting alongside my club side in Green Island and getting back to grassroots where it all started."

The Super Rugby Aotearoa, featuring the Highlanders, Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders, starts on June 13.

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