Highlanders fans could still see departing co-captain and club legend Ben Smith turn out for the side before the end of the regular season.
Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett revealed that the 76-test veteran could return to the match day side for their clash against the Waratahs in Invercargill next week, at least one week earlier than anticipated after straining his hamstring during the Highlanders’ 31-all draw with the Chiefs last month.
“Bender [Smith] is close,” Hammett said.
“He was pushing very hard to get to this week, this is week five and they always say it takes about six weeks for that injury.”
Smith would have been desperate to play in his farewell match against the Bulls at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday, which is likely to be the last home match for the Highlanders before he leaves New Zealand to link up with Top 14 club Pau in France.
Nevertheless, the Highlanders coaching staff are putting emotional attachments to the side as they look to get their main man fit in time for their clash at Rugby Park next week in what will be a must-win clash in order to qualify for the play-offs.
“He’s highly unlikely for this week, we’re not trying to play games,” Hammett said.
“But that’s because we really want to have him there for the final week.”
Smith’s absence at fullback opens the door for young speedster Josh McKay, whose extreme pace could be utilised in the No. 15 jersey as the hosts attempt to run their opponent’s big forward pack off the park.
It would only be his second start of the season, with his first coming way back in round four during the Highlanders’ 24-19 defeat to the Rebels in Melbourne.
A groin injury picked up against the Chiefs – the same match that Smith got injured in – prevented him from travelling to South Africa with his teammates on their unsuccessful two-match tour, but now he is in line to start his first match in three months.
“I was in the injury ward as well when we had a lot of our injuries,” McKay said.
“I spent a bit of time on the sidelines but I played club rugby on Saturday.
“A big thing with coming back from a groin injury is that you build into it quite slowly.
“The first week I didn’t do any running.
“But I have been sprinting for the last two weeks now so feeling good.”
McKay is likely to join Liam Squire, Jackson Hemopo and Tevita Li in returning to the Highlanders’ match day side for the Bulls clash, after all three players missed the South African tour for various reasons.
The Highlanders will name their team on Wednesday.
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