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Smith makes surprise Highlanders return

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Aaron Smith makes surprise return to Highlanders for Blues derby

Star halfback Aaron Smith has made a shock return from injury to be named on the bench for the Highlanders’ clash against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.

Initially ruled out for four-to-six weeks with an ankle injury that he sustained in the Auckland edition of this derby a few weeks ago, Smith has returned earlier than expected after sporting a moon boot in the early stages of his recovery.

The 30-year-old was seen training freely in Dunedin this week without any apparent concern for his ankle, and his presence within the match day squad will be a big boost for a struggling Highlanders that hasn’t tasted victory in Super Rugby in almost two months.

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Smith is joined on the reserves bench by fellow returning All Black and Highlanders co-captain Luke Whitelock, who missed last week’s 43-17 loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch due to a calf injury that he picked up in the previous week’s defeat to the Hurricanes.

The duo add depth a strong side named by head coach Aaron Mauger, which features six All Blacks in the starting lineup, including hooker Liam Coltman, who signed a two-year contract extension with New Zealand Rugby on Tuesday, and lock Jackson Hemopo, who replaces Pari Pari Parkinson in the second row.

The only other change to the starting side comes in the midfield, with hard-hitting centre Sio Tomkinson replacing Rob Thompson and youngster Thomas Umaga-Jensen filling the gap on the bench as the franchise’s midfield merry-go-round continues.

A victory for the 14th-placed Highlanders will extend their tenure as holders of the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for another year after claiming it in 2012, while the Blues will be searching for their first-ever win at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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Aaron Smith makes surprise return to Highlanders for Blues derby