Highlanders look to newcomer as they seek resurgence

If there is one New Zealand franchise in desperate need of a some kind of lift ahead of the Aotearoa domestic competition that will start at the weekend it is the Highlanders, who were the first to name their team on Thursday.

The Highlanders, listed as rank outsiders, 31 to 1 at some bookies, start against the Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday with a low competition rating based on their performances in the truncated Super Rugby tournament earlier this year. They were very poor in the weeks before the coronavirus forced a suspension to rugby and an early end to that competition, winning just one of their matches and looking in serious trouble when the break came.

So it should come as no surprise that their coach Aaron Mauger is looking for impetus from outside of the group that played for him earlier this year, and in a land of big wings it seems they have plucked another one out of the structures in the form of Canterbury wing Sam Gilbert. Standing at over “6 foot 3” and weighing in at close to 100 kilograms, Mauger has gone for Gilbert because of his presence, something that he showed during team training over the last month.

The former All Black centre told the Kiwi media that Gilbert had forced his way into the squad through what he had shown in the intensity sessions.

“He really nailed our internal game, and he deserves that spot,” said Mauger.

Gilbert’s passage into the starting team was facilitated by the concussion that is keeping Ngane Punivai out, but Mauger seems to anticipate big things from Gilbert so he has a chance to nail down the No 14 jersey. With Gilbert coming into the team, Mitch Hunt has been selected at fullback.

There is a big name who could help the Highlanders quite significantly in the back three, where they no longer have the marquee players they did have a few years back, in the form of All Black 2015 World Cup winner Nehe Milner-Skudder but he is battling his way back from injury and there is no clarity as yet on when he will be available.

Mauger described Gilbert as being consistent in his role.

“He’s got presence, and with Jona Nakeri (the left wing) and Mitch they bring a different skillset so we want to make sure we’ve got a power winger in the side, and he’s one that has stepped up through this period,” said the Highlanders coach.

There have already been more than 16 000 tickets sold for Saturday’s clash at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, an impressive turn-over for a game in a smaller city and indicative of the rugby fever that has gripped New Zealand since that country moved to Level 1 coronavirus alert on Monday and it was announced that fans would be permitted at matches.

The Highlanders of course have a vibrant student driven support base but they will need to lift their form of earlier in the year if they hope to keep the interest up and their home stadium buzzing. While the focus in the New Zealand media has been the change made at the back for the Highlanders, it is really the forwards who are going to have to improve if earlier this year is to be a yardstick.

All Black hooker Liam Coltman is only due to play off the bench, with Ash Dixon captaining the team, while Pari Pari Parkinson has been preferred in the second row to Manaaki Selby-Rickit.

All Black Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi will join Gilbert in making his Highlanders debut if or when he comes onto the field off the bench.

HIGHLANDERS TEAM:

Mitch Hunt, Sam Gilbert, Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Jona Nareki, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Dillon Hunt, Shannon Frizell, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (captain), Ayden Johnstone.

Replacements: Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Kayne Hammington, Teihorangi Walden, Vilimoni Koroi.