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21-year-old first five handed maiden start with Highlanders

By Finn Morton
Ajay Faleafaga of the Highlanders passes the ball during the Super Rugby Pacific Pre-Season match between Highlanders and Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 10, 2024 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Fly-half Ajay Faleafaga will start at Super Rugby Pacific match for the first time on Saturday when the Highlanders take on the fifth-placed Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park.


The Highlanders will fly out of Dunedin tomorrow ahead of a two-game tour across the ditch in Australia. After playing the Rebels, the Landers will also take on the Queensland Reds in Brisbane.

After a disappointing 47-12 loss to the still-undefeated Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium late last month, the Highlanders will be desperate to bounce back when they return from their bye week.

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“We were disappointed with how we finished before the bye,” head coach Clarke Dermody said in a statement.

“However, we know what we need to do as a team to improve our standing. These net four games are crucial for our season, and both the playing and coaching team are ready to meet the challenge.”

21-year-old playmaker Ajay Faleafaga will start in the halves along with All Black Folau Fakatava, and there are another two players on the bench in line to debut.

Faleafaga made a try-scoring debut for the Highlanders in their round two loss to the Blues in Dunedin, and has gone on to feature another four times off the pine.


“We’ve been impressed by Ajay’s performances off the bench so far and he has earned his chance to direct the team against the Rebels this weekend,” Dermody added.


Last 5 Meetings

Average Points scored
First try wins
Home team wins

“Both of our potential debutants, Will and Hugo, have been diligent in their training and shown potential in their performances with the Bravehearts and I know they are both excited at the prospect of debuting for the Highlanders

Daniel Lienert-Brown, Henry Bell and Saula Ma’u make up the front row, while Oliver Haig will start in the No. 4 jersey ahead of Fabian Holland who has been ruled out due to HIA protocols.

Pari Pari Parkinson is the other lock. Sean Withy, captain Billy Harmon and Nikora Broughton will form a formidable loose forward trio as the Highlanders look to return to winning ways.


Outside of the previously mentioned halves pairing, vice-captain Sam Gilbert will combine with the ever-reliable Jonah Lowe in the midfield.

The All-Star outside backs combination of Jona Nareki, Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens will get another run this week.

Youngsters Hugo Plummer and Will Stodart are the two potential debutants on the bench.

This match is scheduled to get underway at 9:35 pm NZT on Saturday evening at Melbourne’s AAMI Park.

Highlanders team to take on Rebels

  1. Daniel Lienert-Brown
  2. Henry Bell
  3. Saula Ma’u
  4. Oliver Haig
  5. Pari Pari Parkinson
  6. Sean Withy
  7. Billy Harmon (c)
  8. Nikora Broughton
  9. Folau Fakatava
  10. Ajay Faleafaga
  11. Jona Nareki
  12. Sam Gilbert (vc)
  13. Jonah Lowe
  14. Timoci Tavatavanawai
  15. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens


  1. Ricky Jacobson
  2. Ethan de Groot
  3. Rohan Wingham
  4. Hugo Plummer*
  5. Will Stodart*
  6. James Arscott
  7. Matt Whaanga
  8. Connor Garden-Bachop

Injured/unavailable: Fabian Holland (HIA), Tom Sanders (HIA), Hugh Renton (ankle), Jermaine Ainsely (back), Nathan Hastie (shoulder)


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Jon 23 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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