The 33-year-old fullback has been named to start for the Dunedin side in their biggest fixture of the year, an away quarter-final clash against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
It’s a timely return for Smith, who many thought had played the last of his 152 games for the Highlanders after he hobbled from the field with a hamstring strain after landing awkwardly in the tackle of Luke Jacobson during his side’s 31-all draw with the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium last month.
Smith was ruled out of action for six weeks, meaning he was always expected to be available to play in the post-season, but whether the Highlanders would actually qualify for the play-offs is another story.
Languishing in 11th spot heading into the final round, the Highlanders needed to beat the Waratahs with a bonus point in Invercargill, and then needed other results to fall in their favour in order to stay alive in the competition.
Thrashing the New South Wales side 49-12 at Rugby Park meant that Aaron Mauger’s side did their part, but the Chiefs’ 59-8 walloping of the Rebels in Melbourne put the Highlanders’ play-off aspirations in jeopardy.
However, the Bulls came to the Dunedinites’ rescue, denying the Lions a bonus point in their 48-27 win in Pretoria, enough to secure the Highlanders with an eighth place finish, allowing Smith to finish his Super Rugby career in the post-season.
The return of Smith in place of talented youngster Josh McKay is one of three changes to the starting lineup from the side that pumped the Waratahs last week.
Daniel Lienert-Brown comes in at loosehead prop in place of rookie Ayden Johnstone, who is demoted to the bench, while promising midfielder Sio Tomkinson replaces Tevita Li on the left wing.
No further changes have been made on the bench, meaning this is arguably the strongest side the Highlanders have fielded all season, with no recent injury concerns or All Black rest weeks influencing the selection process, although Tevita Nabura, Richard Buckman and Bryn Gatland weren’t available due to season-ending injuries sustained earlier in the campaign.
The Crusaders will name their side on Wednesday afternoon.
Highlanders team to play Crusaders: 1. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 4. Jackson Hemopo, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Liam Squire, 7. James Lentjes, 8. Luke Whitelock (c0-captain), 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Sio Tomkinson, 12. Tei Walden, 13. Rob Thompson, 14. Waisake Naholo, 15. Ben Smith (co-captain).
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