The Highlanders’ quest for a place in the ultra-competitive Super Rugby play-offs has just gotten that much harder.
The Dunedin-based franchise will have to chase a quarter-final berth without star fullback and co-captain Ben Smith, who has been ruled out for between six to eight weeks with a hamstring strain.
The 32-year-old suffered the injury during his side’s 31-all draw with the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday after falling awkwardly in a strong tackle by Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson.
As the most capped Highlander of all-time with more than 150 club appearances to his name, Smith’s absence will be a significant blow to the seventh-placed side, especially with a daunting two-week trip to South Africa following this week’s clash with the Jaguares at home.
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Ben Smith may have played his last ever game for the Highlanders after being ruled out with a hamstring strain for six to eight weeks. @superrugby #superrugby #highlandersrugby #landersrugby #bensmith #allblacks #nzrugby
With Smith set to link up with French Top 14 club Pau next year, he may have played his last game for the Highlanders, but could still feature for the side should they solidify their spot in the competition’s top eight for the post-season.
Head coach Aaron Mauger tried to ease concerns that Smith would be out of action for a lengthy period immediately after Saturday’s stalemate, but assistant coach Glenn Delaney confirmed the injury news to RugbyPass in Dunedin on Tuesday.
“He’s had a high hamstring strain, so he’s going to be out for six to eight weeks,” he said.
“[It’s been] a normal sort of process with those things, just a classic rugby incident where he just got caught in a tackle and overextended it.
“All the right things have been done, as you would expect, and he’ll be back as quick as he can be with the right rehab.”
While in obvious discomfort as he was assisted from the field, Smith also sported a nasty-looking laceration on his chin, with observers questioning whether a concussion was also evident due to Smith’s history with the injury.
Delaney, however, put those qualms to rest.
“That’s nothing, that’s just superficial, if anything. It’s just a hamstring injury,” he said.
Smith isn’t the first high-profile All Black to have been hampered by injury within the Highlanders squad this year.
Halfback Aaron Smith was initially ruled out for between six to eight weeks after spraining his ankle during his side’s 33-26 defeat to the Blues in Auckland two months ago, but returned to action earlier than expected, while co-captain Luke Whitelock has had issues with his calf.
Loose forward Liam Squire hasn’t featured yet this year after picking up a hip and then a knee injury, and wing Waisake Naholo hasn’t played since that defeat to the Blues due to an MCL injury, but both players are back in full training and are available for selection this weekend.
Delaney said the absence of the Highlanders’ star players at various points throughout their campaign has made them no strangers to adversity, with Smith’s injury-enforced departure creating an opportunity for someone else to fill his role at fullback.
“We’ve had guys dropping out throughout the year. I think we lost Aaron Smith for a bit, we’ve had Liam out for a bit, and Waisake’s been out for a bit.
“It’s one thing with rugby, the players will get injured, so we can’t do anything about it, but what we’ll do is we’ll support them and make sure the rehab’s right and that he’s [Smith] back and right and firing on all cylinders as soon as he can.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for someone else to play there, and we just have to get on with that.
“We’ll miss him, for sure. He’s great to have around, great leader on the field, and we’re very luck that him and Luke [Whitelock] have been co-captaining, so we don’t lose all our leadership at all.”
Matt Faddes and Josh McKay loom as the most likely candidates to fill Smith’s boots in the No. 15 jersey in the coming weeks, although the latter was used as first-five cover on the bench last weekend as the Highlanders await the return of veteran playmaker Marty Banks from a broken foot.
The Highlanders will announce their side to take on the Jaguares this weekend on Thursday.
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