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'Big opportunity' finally arrives for All Blacks hopeful Marino Mikaele-Tu'u

By Tom Vinicombe
Marino Mikaele-Tu'u. (Photo by Chris Symes/Photosport)

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With Covid now prevalent in the community, it’s no surprise that the Highlanders have had to rejig their team ahead of their Round 4 Super Rugby Pacific clash with the Blues.


The Highlanders have made five personnel changes to their starting line-up for this Friday’s clash at Eden Park, bringing in Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Aaron Smith, Mosese Dawai and Scott Gregory. Bryn Evans, Hugh Renton and Folau Fakatava have dropped back to the bench while Fetuli Paea and Sam Gilbert have been omitted from the match-day 23 altogether.

Highlanders manager Greg O’Brien confirmed on Wednesday that a number of squad members had been afflicted by Covid but understandably would not divulge the names of any individuals.

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“We can confirm we’ve got a few cases within our environment that we’re dealing with, have been dealing with the last couple of weeks really as we look to mitigate the effect of Covid on us,” he said.

“It hasn’t affected our ability to field a side at all this week.”


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Whether Covid is behind any specific absences is unknown but head coach Tony Brown was quick to explain a number of the more curious changes to the starting line-up.

All Black Smith’s return to the No 9 jersey is no surprise while lock Selby-Rickit has been one of the Highlanders’ best performers over the opening three rounds of the competition, starting against the Chiefs and Crusaders and then adding plenty of impetus off the bench against the Hurricanes last weekend.

“We just rotated Manaaki back in as we rotated him out last week,” Brown said of the change in the second row. “It’s not really anything to do with the Blues, it’s more just managing our squad.”

Perhaps the more interesting change in the forwards is the elevation of Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, with the 24-year old a permanent fixture in the No 19 jersey to kick off the year. The loose forward burst onto the scene back in 2020 and was considered by some as a possible inclusion in that year’s All Blacks squad. Mikaele-Tu’u missed out, however, and subsequently struggled for minutes with the Highlanders last year, managing just three starts and two further appearances from the reserves. That was thanks in part to the presence of Japanese international Kazuki Himeno, who has returned to Japan for the 2021 season.


Brown suggested that Friday’s skirmish could be Mikaele-Tu’u’s chance to draw a line in the sand.

“I think with Marino, he’s come off an operation so we wanted to build his load through the early part of the season and we feel as though he’s ready to start a game of rugby now,” he said, “and it’s pretty exciting for him to get out there and show everyone what he’s got because he had a bit of a light year last year so it’s a big opportunity for him.”


The return of Mosese Dawai in the back three is also notable, with the 2022 debutant struggling in his first-up appearance against the Chiefs in the opening round of the competition. Brown has dropped plenty of hints that the Fijian flyer could be back in action soon and he’s made good on that, bringing Dawai back into the line-up in the No 11 jersey.

“He’s had a great couple of weeks,” Brown said. “He’s added a little bit of conditioning to his footy so he’s a bit fitter.

“But I think it was important for him just to have a couple of weeks off, think about what happened on his debut, and make sure that next time he gets the opportunity, he’s gonna play his style of rugby and not be afraid.”

With Dawai on the left wing, last weekend’s debutant Liam Coombes-Fabling on the right (both who represented Waikato in last year’s NPC title-winning run) and the inexperienced highly promising Connor Garden-Bachop at fullback, the Highlanders’ back three boasts just 10 caps in total but plenty of X-factor – something Tony Brown’s side will need if they’re looking to finally start scoring some tries.

The Highlanders will take on the Blues at 7:05pm NZT on Friday evening.


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