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Aaron Smith gets a breather with Folau Fakatava named to start for Highlanders

By Tom Vinicombe
Folau Fakatava. (Photo by Derek Morrison/Photosport)

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The Highlanders have named their Round 3 team to play the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday night at Sky Stadium. The game will be played under the red light setting with a limited crowd in attendance in what will be a small step back towards normality.

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There are just three changes to the run-on side that came out firing against the Crusaders in Dunedin last week, the most significant being Aaron Smith dropping to the bench with Folau Fakatava taking over at halfback.

The Highlanders’ forward pack remains largely intact from last Saturday. Ethan de Groot, Liam Coltman and Jermaine Ainsley will again pack down in the front row while Josh Dickson holds his spot in the No 5 jersey. Former All Black Bryn Evans will make his first start of the season, taking the place of Manaaki Selby-Rickit, who drops to the bench.

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The loose forwards are also unchanged, with Shannon Frizell and James Lentjes on the flanks and Gareth Evans at number 8. Lentjes takes over as one of the side’s two co-captains in the absence of regular skipper Smith.

In the halves, Fakatava will combine with the side’s other co-captain, Mitch Hunt, while Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea will continue to develop their partnership in the midfield.

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Newcomer Liam Coombes-Fabling will debut on the left wing after joining the team three weeks ago in Queenstown as an injury replacement player with right wing Sam Gilbert and fullback Connor Garden-Bachop holding their spots from the loss to the Crusaders.

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Head coach Tony Brown said, “This is a good opportunity for Fakatava while we manage Nuggie’s load and we’re looking forward to seeing how he goes. We know we’re going to benefit from Nug’s leadership, speed, and energy when he comes on.

“Liam has earned his opportunity with three good weeks of training; he has a high work rate and provides x-factor on the edge.”

Powerful young prop Saula Ma’u has been named on the bench for a potential debut. Ma’u has had a frustrating couple of years with injury and will be looking forward to getting his opportunity when it comes. He’ll be joined by Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Selby-Rickit and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u as cover for the forwards.

After running with a 6-2 split on the bench last weekend, Brown has resorted to a more conventional 5-3 split this weekend, with Smith, Marty Banks and utility Scott Gregory named in the reserves.

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Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT in Wellington with the Highlanders out to make amends after two losses to the Hurricanes in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.

Highlanders: Connor Garden-Bachop, Sam Gilbert, Fetuli Paea, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Liam Coombes-Fabling, Mitch Hunt, Folau Fakatava, Gareth Evans, James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Josh Dickson, Bryn Evans, Jermaine Ainsley, Liam Coltman, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Aaron Smith, Marty Banks, Scott Gregory.

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