How Much Do Highlanders Rugby Players Earn? (2023)

This article looks at the salaries of rugby players with the Highlanders in New Zealand.

It’s true that individual salaries are private contracts. However, the general salary ranges for Super Rugby are made public by New Zealand Rugby.

In addition, details often trickle out about the star players at the franchise. We take a close look at Aaron Smith’s contract.

How Do Highlanders Players Get Paid?

Before we get into average and top salaries, let’s take a look at how the Highlanders get paid.

New Zealand is different from many other countries where the clubs foot the wage bill for players.

In contrast, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) employs and pays the salaries of their Super Rugby players. NZR then contracts the players to the Highlanders roster.

There isn’t a single wage level for players. NZR negotiates pay rates with each player or their agent.

However, we know the approximate ranges which I’ll get into in a later section.

Brand deals and advertising

Brand deals and image rights are worth very different amounts across players.

Some work with national brands e.g. the big sports or retail companies.

However, there are other opportunities for lesser-known Highlanders who haven’t made the All Blacks. If you travel through the region, you’ll probably see local players in local advertising.

Of course, this isn’t going to be for big dollars, but it’s very welcome for those players at the lower end of the salary range.

Third-party top-ups

The Dunedin franchise is allowed to seek extra funding or individual players from third parties. Every deal must be approved by NZR.

These third parties are usually businesses in the region that want to be associated with star players.

What makes up a Highlanders player’s salary?

Their entire salary can be made up of several income streams. These must all be reported to the NZR to ensure that salary caps aren’t being exceeded by franchises.

  • Monthly wage from New Zealand Rugby
  • Win bonuses and some expenses from the Highlanders franchise*
  • Image rights and endorsements
  • International tests with the All Blacks
  • Third-party top-ups (only a few players benefit from these)

(*) Additional payments from the franchise must be kept within the national salary cap that governs the five New Zealand Super Rugby teams.

How Much Do Highlanders Players Earn?

Players with the Highlanders earn from NZ$75K to NZ$195K as a base salary.

Highlanders who are selected for an All Blacks squad can earn an extra $120K per year in assembly fees.

One star player, Aaron Smith, is estimated to earn up to NZ$750K with third-party funding.

Development players earn about $52K.  

Individual salaries are negotiated with New Zealand Rugby who pays a retainer to players and contracts them to the franchise.

Young players on their first Highlanders contract will earn at least $75K, which is the bottom of the scale. This will rise over the years.

As players approach the end of their careers, their salaries may drop towards the middle of the range. This can lead to them seeking a move to another franchise, or overseas.

The players at the top end are experienced players who have been involved in at least some All Blacks squads. The Highlanders have fewer “stars” than some of their rival New Zealand franchises.

Development players

The Highlanders have several young development players that they are preparing to take the step up to Super Rugby. Their wages of about NZ$52K per season aren’t included in the Salary Cap.

The Highlanders can also draft in more experienced club players as temporary injury cover. These players are paid a weekly wage of about NZ$1,800 for the duration.

Don’t be shocked if you encounter someone in a “real” job who you saw on the Highlanders bench for a Super Rugby match.

This could be a guy working in sports sales or as a personal trainer. He’s probably playing decent club rugby and was drafted by the Highlanders as injury cover.

Who Are The Highest Paid Highlanders Players?

man in a bath throwing money in the air

Most of the other New Zealand franchises have several marquee players with long All Blacks careers.

It’s fair to say that the Highlanders are a little low in star power. But their marque player is at the fulcrum of the team. Of course, that’s scrumhalf Aaron Smith.

Aaron Smith

Unlike fellow All Blacks like Beauden Barrett or Sam Whitelock, Smith hasn’t gone abroad for a lucrative contract in Japan.

Salary details usually get leaked with players are switching clubs or countries. Because Smith is a one-franchise man, we don’t have much specific detail about his salary level.

However, we believe that New Zealand Rugby values the veteran scrumhalf highly in the run-up to the next World Cup. He signed a new contract in 2021 that keeps him with the Highlanders until then.

We estimate that Smith’s contract is worth NZ$650-750K per year.

This package includes significant amounts of third-party funding.

How Much Do Highlanders Earn With The All Blacks?

When a Highlander is called up to the All Blacks, he gets a weekly fee of $7,500 for the tour or competition.

You can get more details in our article on New Zealand rugby salaries. You may be surprised how low the All Blacks pay compared to England!

How Do The Highlanders Compare To Other Super Rugby Franchises?

We’ll start with the other New Zealand franchises and then look across at the neighbors.

New Zealand franchises

The average salaries are similar across the New Zealand franchises. However, salaries for the stars can vary widely

You’ll find details in these articles:

Australian franchises

Due to the salary cap in Australia, the average earnings of Australian rugby players tend to be similar across the country’s franchises.

However, the top earners at each franchise and their packages are very different. Check out these articles for details about stars at the clubs:

How Do The Highlanders Compare To Overseas Clubs?

The Highlanders have lost many good players to elite clubs in Europe and Japan.

Check out the articles below on salary levels overseas. If you’re interested in a particular club, you’ll find links in the country overview to detailed club articles.