Highlanders' bad boys back in selection frame
INTERVIEW: Highlanders star Josh Ioane will be available to play for his side again when they face the Chiefs in Dunedin this Saturday.
Ioane, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Patelesio Tomkinson, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Sione Misiloi all missed last week’s shock 33-12 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch – after they were stood down for disciplinary reasons.
The suspension of Ioane was particularly eye-catching, given his talent and stature within the franchise as a one-Test All Black.
However, Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody confirmed on Tuesday that the 25-year-old is free to play this weekend.
“As Tony said last week, they need to earn their way back in, so I guess, for them, it’s about earning the trust of the boys again,” he said.
“They’re doing that. They’ve put their heads down and started working. They’re all available for selection, but it’s up to the coaches and leaders if they’ve earned that spot.”
Whether any of those six players – barring Lienert-Brown, who is out until later this month with a broken arm – will come back into this week’s side remains to be seen given how well last week’s team performed against the reigning champions.
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Among the standouts in that match were midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen and halfback Folau Fakatava, but both players have picked up injuries that have put a dent in their seasons.
Umaga-Jensen will miss the remainder of the season due to a broken arm in what is the latest blow for a young player that has shown glimpses of his vast potential but has been riddled with injury in recent seasons.
The 23-year-old made his first Super Rugby appearance in two years when he played against the Hurricanes a fortnight ago, and he will have to wait until next year to play for the Highlanders again.
Dermody said he was disappointed for Umaga-Jensen, the twin brother of one-test All Blacks midfielder Peter, and confirmed that Otago product and ex-Sunwolves midfielder Josh Timu had been called into the squad as injury cover.
“Gutted for Thomas. He worked really hard to get back. He’s a big man and he got himself into awesome condition and then was playing well,” Dermody said.
“The time frame, I think, is very similar to Daniel Lienert-Brown, so you’re looking at three months. Gutted for him. He’s only a young fella and he’s had some big setbacks through injuries, but we’ve seen how talented he is so I’m sure he’ll be back again.”
As for Fakatava, the highly-promising 21-year-old left the field last weekend with a swollen knee that Dermody said needs to be scanned before a decision can be made regarding his availability for the Chiefs clash.
Losing Fakatava would be a significant blow for the Dunedin-based franchise given how effective his partnership with co-captain Aaron Smith has been in the matchday side.
“He adds a different dynamic to our team,” Dermody said. “Him and Aaron working together – they were a big part of that win on the weekend, two different styles, so we’ll give him everything he needs.”
The pair add to a growing injury list at the Highlanders, as Liam Squire (knee), Jermaine Ainsley (ankle), Fetuli Paea (ankle) and Freedom Vahaakolo (foot) have all been ruled out for the remainder of the season with various injuries.
In more positive injury news, wing Sam Gilbert is set to play his first match in 10 months after he ruptured his ACL while playing for the Highlanders against the Blues in Auckland last June.
Dermody said the 22-year-old is scheduled for limited minutes at grassroots level this weekend before being considered for selection at the Highlanders.
“He’s progressing really well. I think he’s down to play club footy this week. Obviously been a long time out for him, but he’s down for 20-30 minutes of club footy, so he’ll start returning back into the fray.”
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass