He may have been heralded as one of the biggest signings leading into the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but Highlanders outside back Nehe Milner-Skudder may not be available until next season.
That was the verdict given by the franchise’s assistant coach Tony Brown, who revealed on Wednesday the injury-riddled former All Black has returned to full contact training following a lengthy sideline stint.
It has been over a year-and-a-half since the 29-year-old last appeared on the field, with his most recent outing coming for the All Blacks in their 69-31 victory over Japan in November 2018.
A persistent shoulder injury has kept him from playing, though, with a deal with Top 14 side Toulon thwarted by his ongoing rehabilitation.
Unable to link up with the French club, Milner-Skudder subsequently inked a two-year contract with the Highlanders in May.
Hopes have been high in Dunedin that the 13-test star would be able to strut his stuff under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium during Super Rugby Aotearoa.
An increased volume of training in recent weeks have been positive signs that the ex-Hurricanes speedster will be able to play, with Highlanders boss Aaron Mauger previously indicating that he could appear at the latter end of the Kiwi domestic league.
That, however, hasn’t happened yet, and Brown provided an update on when fans can expect Milner-Skudder to don the blue and gold jersey.
“Milner-Skudder’s starting to get into some full contact stuff with us, but he’ll still be a couple of weeks away,” Brown said.
Brown, who was assistant coach for Japan when Milner-Skudder last played against the Brave Blossoms two years ago, added that the new signing could feature in the last match of the season against the Hurricanes in Dunedin on August 15.
That would see him pitted against his old franchise, and potentially against his former teammate Julian Savea, who has re-joined the Hurricanes from Toulon as injury cover for the remainder of the campaign.
The Hurricanes conceded that, like Milner-Skudder, Savea will need to be brought up to speed in terms of fitness, with the Wellington club targeting the Highlanders clash as a possible return date for the 54 test ex-All Black.
Milner-Skudder, meanwhile, will need to come through unscathed at grassroots level before he is considered for Highlanders selection.
“I think Nehe’s got to prove himself that he’s good enough to play at this level, and obviously in the past he has been,” Brown said.
“He’s been out a long time, so he’s going to have to get into a lot of contact, potentially play a bit of club rugby, and if the signs are good, he potentially might make it for that last game.”
He noted a precautionary approach has been taken with Milner-Skudder’s return to action as he re-adjusts to the rigours of professional rugby.
“It would have been great to get Nehe out there three or four weeks ago, but we’ve just got to make sure that he’s a hundred percent confident in his shoulder.
“He’s been through the work, and if he can prove that he is good enough to fit into the side, then we’ll select him.”
Should he fail to prove his fitness in training and at club level, though, Highlanders fans will have to wait until 2021 to see Milner-Skudder turn out for their side.
In the meantime, the southerners will continue to prepare for their do-or-die encounter with the Blues in Dunedin on Sunday.
The outcome of that match will go a long way to determining which sides will still be in the running for the tightly-contested Super Rugby Aotearoa title.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 28, 2020
That alone means there will be no shortage of motivation for either team, but Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon highlighted the significance of the fixture as the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy is set to go on the line.
Hunter coached both franchises prior to his passing in 2002, and Dixon made no secret of the legacy the former All Blacks selector left in Dunedin.
“I think the longer I’ve been in this team, the more it’s impacted me,” Dixon said of the unique rivalry between the Highlanders and Blues.
“Especially when the older guys turn up and come in, from Browny’s [Tony Brown] era, and talk about, not what he was like as a coach, but what he actually did for the team.
“His whole love for the game and the club was awesome, so we use that as a bit of inspiration.
“We obviously didn’t get to meet him or be coached by him, but the way they speak about him, half of them are quite teary and get really emotional about it.
“We’ve had it for eight years now, and that’s by no surprise, there’s been some pretty big efforts against mighty Blues teams, but we’ve had to dig really deep, and there’s no surprises this weekend we’re going to have to [dig deep again].
“But we’re prepared for it, and we’ve just got to go out there and enjoy our rugby and play the rugby we can.”
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