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'He's the perfect guy'

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'He's the perfect guy' - Teammates rejoice return of Highlanders cult hero

It has been somewhat of a different pre-season for the Highlanders in 2019.

The men from the deep south have already lost star playmaker Lima Sopoaga, who has departed for greener pastures in England, and they are preparing for life without captain and club legend Ben Smith, who leaves for France at the end of the year.

Rumours continue to persist about other fan favourites joining Sopoaga and Smith overseas at the end of this campaign, with franchise record try-scorer Waisake Naholo at the forefront of those discussions as both London Irish and Wasps chase after his signature.

Add to that a flurry of fresh faces, which includes the addition of new skills coach Riki Flutey, and the set-up in Dunedin is slightly different to what those who have been in the squad for the past few seasons are used to.

But ask injured prop Aki Seiuli how his teammates are dealing to those adjustments, and the 26-year-old indicates there is no decrease of hunger or work rate in pre-season training.

“The boys have been working hard,” he told RugbyPass at Tuesday’s post-Super Rugby season launch media session.

“[It’s been] a bit of a change. The majority of the boys are looking to put some size on, so it hasn’t been as hectic as the previous years from what I’ve seen, but [it’s] still pretty tough.”

One of the Highlanders’ key focuses during pre-season to help offset the franchise’s evolving surroundings is to build the team’s “connection”, which concentrates on concepts such as communication and trust within the squad, Seiuli said.

The work done in that facet of training showed during the side’s first of two pre-season matches, as the Highlanders walked away with a comprehensive 59-38 win over the Waratahs in Alexandra.

“First game, it’s never going to be what you want, but there were some promising results that came out of that game,” Seiuli said.

“[The] young boys stepped up, and I think leading into it, there was a big connection thing as well.

“We got out to Alexandra and we got billeted out to the families, and it was just a humbling camp, it kept the boys tight.

“It was good, I think that helped a lot with our win and getting the trust of everyone and keeping tight.”

Seiuli played no part in his team’s first-up win, as a ruptured ACL sustained during last year’s Mitre 10 Cup campaign means he won’t add to his 38 Super Rugby caps in 2019.

Instead, he plans on returning to action for Otago later in the year.

“The only good thing is there’s no pressure to return back and play, so I’ve got enough time to get it right,” he said.

“I should be running hopefully next week, when I see the surgeon, so everything’s all on track and hopefully I’ll get some good news next Tuesday.”

A bonus of spending time off the playing field is being able to assess the squad’s new recruits, and there is a noticeable returnee in the form of cult hero Marty Banks.

Seiuli and Banks played alongside each other throughout the 2016 and 2017 campaigns before the latter left for stints in Italy and Japan, but the return of the seasoned 29-year-old pivot should plug the gap left in the backline by Sopoaga.

“He’s integrated pretty smoothly,” Seiuli said.

“An experienced player like Marty, he offers a lot – not just to the team, but to the other two young first-fives, Bryan Gatland and Josh Ioane.

“He was the last guy to fill in that 10 spot, and he’s the perfect guy [for it]. The Highlanders love him there, and it’s good to have him back.

“There’s always healthy competition between the 10’s, so you never know who’s going to perform at any given time, and I’m sure they’ll all get their opportunities.”

The Highlanders conclude their pre-season schedule against the Crusaders in Southbridge this weekend, and will face the Chiefs in the first match of the regular season in Hamilton next Friday.

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'He's the perfect guy' - Teammates rejoice return of Highlanders cult hero