Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger has rung the changes as his side prepares to face what he believes will be a gritty, youthful Reds outfit in Dunedin on Friday night.
The injection of nine All Blacks into the starting lineup – including Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt, Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo, all of whom didn’t start last weekend – makes for a very strong Highlanders side, of which will be looking to build on from their thrilling season-opening 30-27 win over the Chiefs in Hamilton last Friday.
Impressive playmaker Josh Ioane has retained his role as the starting first-five after a composed showing at Waikato Stadium, with cult hero Marty Banks set to complete his return to the franchise from off the bench after ousting Bryn Gatland – who failed to make his Highlanders debut from off the pine last week – in the reserves.
“Josh performed well,” Mauger told RugbyPass of his pivot’s display last weekend.
“[It’s] just a reflection of the quality of preparation he’s put into his game through the pre-season, went out there and trusted his game.
“[He] did everything we asked, and you could see his confidence growing and the trust that the guys around him are starting to have in Josh leading the team around the park.
“Marty comes into the 23, [as] part of our plan, we want to get all those fly halves involved in the first couple of weeks, so they’ll get their time through there.”
A notable omission from the match day squad is 23-test loose forward Liam Squire.
The 27-year-old announced his signing with Japanese club NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes earlier this week, meaning 2019 will act as his final season with the Highlanders.
However, the start of his last campaign with the Dunedin-based franchise has been delayed with a “hip grumble”, according to Mauger.
“We just want to make sure we manage him right,” Mauger said.
“It could be one week or it could be two, so we’ll just wait for the medical team to give us the go ahead.
“Like out All Blacks last week, we want to make sure they’re ready when we put them out there, there’s no point putting them out there, especially when we’ve got the depth that we have in that position.”
While the All Blacks selectors see three-test Hemopo primarily as a number six that can play in the second row, Mauger views things differently.
“We see him as a lock that can play six,” he said.
“This year, we’ve got a lot of loose forwards. Last week, he played six due to circumstances, that’s what we required [of him], but he’s going to play lock this week with the potential to shift out if we need him.”
Despite the obvious firepower evident throughout his side, Mauger is wary of the threat posed by the Brad Thorn-coached Reds.
The Queenslanders are yet to play this season, after having the bye in the opening round, but Mauger is expecting the youngsters in the side to shine under the tutelage of Thorn.
“You can see in the Reds’ performances over the last year how much that reflects Thorny, and how he played the game and his mindset towards the game.
“He’s really transformed them. They’ve turned into a real tough team to play against, they compete very hard at everything, and that was Thorny’s style of play, and I’m sure he’s transferred that into his coaching philosophy as well.
“We expect them to be on for 80 minutes, they’re a team that don’t give up, there’s plenty of guts and grit in their side, and they’ve also got some young guys coming through.
“Hamish Stewart, they’ve got Moses Sorovi at nine, who performed really well in their pre-season games, and starting to take a bit of confidence and lead their team around, so they’ll be a very tough challenge this week.”
The Highlanders fought hard for an 18-15 win over the Reds in the corresponding fixture last year, requiring a second-half comeback and 78th-minute penalty goal to break a 15-all deadlock in Brisbane.
Mauger is set to be without the services of one of his own youngster, with midfielder Sio Tomkinson still awaiting a verdict from his judiciary hearing following his controversial red card for a rogue tackle on Brodie Retallick last week.
The Highlanders appealed Glenn Jackson’s decision to send Tomkinson off, and are hopeful of a result this afternoon, Mauger said.
Highlanders team to face the Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday:
- Ayden Johstone
- Liam Coltman
- Tyrel Lomax
- Jackson Hemopo
- Josh Dickson
- Shannon Frizell
- Dillon Hunt
- Luke Whitelock (cc)
- Aaron Smith
- Josh Ioane
- Tevita Li
- Tei Walden
- Rob Thompson
- Waisake Naholo
- Ben Smith (cc)
- Ash Dixon
- Daniel Lienert-Brown
- Siate Tokolahi
- Jack Whetton
- Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
- Kayne Hammington
- Marty Banks
- Matt Faddes
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