VIDEO: Brown bolter: Highlanders on the Hunt for new playmaker
TEAM ANNOUNCEMENT: Highlanders coach Tony Brown has sprung a playmaking surprise for their upcoming clash against the Hurricanes in Dunedin on Friday.
Brown has pushed one-Test All Black flyhalf Josh Ioane to fullback.
Ioane has started the last two matches for the southern franchise in his preferred flyhalf role, but Brown has shifted him to fullback – with Mitch Hunt named in the No.10 jersey.
Hunt has often been deployed at No.15 to work in tandem with Ioane since arriving at the Highlanders from the Crusaders ahead of the 2020 campaign, but the pair will switch roles against the Super Rugby Aotearoa cellar-dwellers this weekend.
The positional switch isn’t the only noteworthy change made by Brown ahead of this weekend’s clash, as All Black prospects Pari Pari Parkinson (ankle) and Ayden Johnstone (concussion) have returned to the matchday side following long injury lay-offs.
Parkinson will partner two-Test All Blacks lock Bryn Evans in the second row, while loosehead prop Johnstone will start from the bench.
Johnstone will be joined on the bench by 17-Test Japan loose forward Kazuki Himeno, who is in line to make his debut for the Highlanders after a delayed start to Super Rugby Aotearoa – following his quarantine-disrupted arrival from Japan last month.
Elsewhere, electric wing Jona Nareki will start on the left wing despite concerns about a hip pointer injury he sustained during his side’s 17-39 loss to the Blues a fortnight ago.
He will form one half of a dynamic wing partnership with blockbusting Otago speedster Freedom Vahakaakolo, who will make his debut after being named to start on the right wing.
The match will also give midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen his first opportunity to play for the Highlanders this season after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a shoulder injury.
The 23-year-old has been named to start on the bench and will likely face his twin brother and Hurricanes midfielder Peter.
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This game will mark Aaron Smith’s 154th appearance for the Highlanders, making him the franchises most capped player ever ‘- surpassing the legendary Ben Smith.
The mercurial scrumhalf has set new standards in No.9 play since his debut in 2011 and is still widely acknowledged as the best scrumhalf in the world.
Those unavailable due to injury include Sam Gilbert (knee) and Daniel Lienert-Brown (Arm) – while Jermaine Ainsley (ankle) and Fetuli Paea (ankle) have suffered season-ending injuries.
Highlanders: 15 Josh Ioane, 14 Freedom Vahaakolo, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Patelesio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Pari Pari Parkinson, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Kazuki Himeno, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 23 Connor Garden-Bachop.
Date: Friday, March 26
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.05 (06.00 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe, Mike Fraser
TMO: Chris Hart
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass