Highlanders' duo miss another week
INJURY UPDATE: All Blacks duo Josh Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder have been ruled unavailable for the Highlanders’ clash against the Blues at Eden Park in Auckland this week.
The news was confirmed by outgoing Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett on Tuesday.
Both players were absent from their side’s opening victory of Super Rugby Aotearoa against the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium on June 13, with Ioane a late withdrawal from the starting side due to a groin injury.
The match was set to be his first appearance in the No. 10 jersey for the Highlanders this year after having been deployed at second-five throughout the club’s five matches in the initial Super Rugby competition between February and March.
However, the one-cap All Black will have to wait at least another week before getting the opportunity to play in his preferred first-five position.
That leaves head coach Aaron Mauger with a selection conundrum leading into this week’s match, with fellow pivots Mitch Hunt and Bryn Gatland in contention for the starting playmaker role.
Hunt was given the nod at No. 10 in every match the Highlanders played before Super Rugby’s suspension over three months ago and was thrust into his primary position in Ioane’s absence against the Chiefs after originally being named at fullback.
It was Gatland, though, who stole the headlines by coming off the bench to slot the match-winning drop goal in the 79th minute to give the Highlanders a 28-27 upset win over the side coached by his dad Warren.
Whether Gatland’s late heroics are enough to earn him his first start for the franchise remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Milner-Skudder will also be absent from the team that is due to be named on Thursday.
The 13-test All Blacks wing joined the Highlanders as injury cover ahead of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but remains sidelined as he continues his rehabilitation of a troublesome shoulder that has prevented him from taking the field for over a year-and-a-half.
Milner-Skudder’s last appearance came for the All Blacks in their 69-31 win over Japan in November 2018, although his presence in the Highlanders squad indicates he may not be far away from his long-awaited return.
Mauger said last month that he hoped the 2015 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year would be available for the early rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Capable of playing at either fullback or on the right-wing, the former Hurricanes flyer will have competition for a place in the starting side upon his rugby comeback.
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Fellow new signing Vilimoni Koroi donned the No. 15 jersey against the Chiefs following the backline re-shuffle brought on by Ioane’s late injury, while Jona Nareki and debutant Sam Gilbert started on the wings.
There is noticeable depth throughout the outside back contingent, which also features the likes of Josh McKay, Michael Collins, Tima Fainga’anuku, Chris Kuridrani and Ngane Punivai, who has been cleared to face the Blues following an injury lay-off.