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'He scores a lot': Highlanders 'X-factor' winger returns for first start since 2021

By Ned Lester

The Highlanders’ Super Rugby Pacific season hangs in the balance over the final four rounds and with All Blacks to rest and two top-three teams to face, chances of making the top eight are looking grim for the tenth-placed team.


One light amongst the darkness is the return of Jona Nareki, the Fijian-born flyer having been sidelined from Super Rugby since 2021 with knee, ankle and foot injuries.

In that 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, Nareki was tied for the second-most tries scored while featuring in the top five for clean breaks and defenders beaten. Those statistics put his name in the same category as the likes of All Blacks Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke and Sevu Reece.

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The timely return could be just the boost that the Southland team need to extend their season into the playoffs.

“He’s an X-factor player. He scores a lot for us, and he’s accurate in his reads on defence, and he also has a pretty good left boot,” Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody said of Nareki, following the naming of his matchday 23 to face the Brumbies in Canberra.


The 23 selected for the match are not Dermody’s top side, despite the time pressure and points needed to advance. The coach has instead opted to field a younger side and rest most of his All Blacks to ensure their fitness and availability for the final stretch.

23-year-old prop Saula Ma’u profits from the resting of the usual front row, the 140kg is in his second year with the club and will claim the second start of his Super Rugby career.


“It will be a good test for him around his set piece. He’s got a chance to start against an international front row. He’s looking forward to it, and it’s a good challenge,” Dermody said of the promising youngster.

Aaron Smith is also rested and will see Folau Fakatava take up the No 9 jersey while Shannon Frizzel slides into the locks to partner Josh Dickson.

While not his familiar position, Frizzel was forced to switch to lock mid-game last week after an injury to Fabian Holland. While the change comes out of necessity, Dermody was full of praise for how the shift complimented the All Black’s game.

“Shannon did a great job for us last week. It sort of suited him. It got him into the middle of the field, where he got his hands on the ball a bit more, and he’s a pretty good lineout exponent.”


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