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Highlanders bolster forward pack for Blues while ex-NZ U20 first five gets debut

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

The Highlanders have made three changes to their starting side, all up front in the forward pack, as they prepare to face the Blues in Melbourne in Super round.

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Bolstering the tight five is All Black prop Ethan de Groot and veteran Jermaine Ainsley, who start alongside Henry Bell up front. Last week’s try-scoring tighthead Saula Ma’u and Dan Lienert-Brown move to the bench.

In the second row, Max Hicks has been named to start with Pari Pari Parkinson while Fabian Holland moves to the bench as lock cover.

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The back row of Sean Withy, Billy Harmon and Hugh Renton remains unchanged with bench cover from Nikora Broughton.

Unsurprisingly, there are no changes to last week’s backline that lit up Forsyth Barr with a scintillating performance.

Folau Fakatava partners Rhys Patchell in the halves, Sam Gilbert continues his move to No 12 alongside ex-Blues centre Tanielu Tele’a, while the back three is Jona Nareki, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai.

Replacing Cam Miller on the bench is last year’s New Zealand U20 first five-eighth Ajay Faleafaga who will deputise for Welsh international Patchell.

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“I’m pleased with the strides the team has made, but there’s always room for growth. We’re aiming to build on our performance from round one and meet the challenge in Melbourne,” head coach Clarke Dermody said.

Highlanders team to play Blues

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Henry Bell
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Pari Pari Parkinson
5. Max Hicks
6. Sean Withy
7. Billy Harmon (C)
8. Hugh Renton
9. Folau Fakatava
10. Rhys Patchell
11. Jona Nareki
12. Sam Gilbert (VC)
13. Tanielu Tele’a
14. Timoci Tavatavanawai
15. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens

Reserves

16. Ricky Jackson
17. Daniel Lienert-Brown
18. Saula Ma’u
19. Fabian Holland
20. Nikora Broughton
21. Nathan Hastie
22. Ajay Faleafaga*
23. Jonah Lowe

*Super Rugby Pacific debut

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Poorfour 11 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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