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Highlanders boss Tony Brown explains positional switches for three key players

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Highlanders head coach Tony Brown believes Thomas Umaga-Jensen’s move from second-five to centre may bring the best out of the wildcard All Blacks prospect.

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Umaga-Jensen has been named to start in the No 13 jersey for the second match running this weekend when the Highlanders become the first Super Rugby Pacific team to play the Fijian Drua in Suva on Saturday.

The powerful 24-year-old starred there for the Dunedin-based franchise in their 28-17 Super Round defeat to the Brumbies in Melbourne last Sunday after having played exclusively at second-five throughout this year’s Super Rugby Pacific.

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Umaga-Jensen’s performance at AAMI Park was a continuation of his strong form this season, which has thrust him into discussions about a potential All Blacks call-up among an uncertain group of midfield candidates.

As such, Brown has opted to retain Umaga-Jensen at centre after having swapped midfield places with new second-five Fetuli Paea.

The reasoning behind the slight positional tweaks is due to the fact that Brown thinks Umaga-Jensen’s traits as an explosive ball-carrier will flourish more in the wider channels than in the face of stern defences further in the backline.

“There’s not a lot of difference, really,” Brown said on Thursday of the exchange of positions between Umaga-Jensen and Paea.

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“It probably is what you’re saying, it’s just getting him into a little bit more space a little bit wider so he can be a little bit more destructive there rather than sending him into dominant defenders.

“We feel as though Fetuli’s a physical guy in our backline, both on attack and defence, and the 12 position suits him better.”

Umaga-Jensen and Paea aren’t the only players Brown is keen to try in alternative positions, as he revealed that he sees All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi as a long-term first-five rather than an outside back option.

A veteran of rugby’s abbreviated format, Koroi has largely played on the wing or at fullback in XVs, where most of his game time has come for Otago in the NPC.

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The exciting 24-year-old has also been called upon as a first-five on occasion while playing provincially, but he is yet to feature as a pivot for the Highlanders at Super Rugby level.

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In fact, Koroi has only three appearances to his name since making his Highlanders debut in Super Rugby Aotearoa two years ago, and has played just once this year in a brief cameo showing off the bench against the Blues in Dunedin last month.

Koroi has again missed the cut to play against the Drua this weekend, and Brown said he has kept the hot-stepper sidelined as he continues his ongoing positional transition in training.

Brown made particular note that he doesn’t see Koroi’s future as a wing due to the sizeable nature of those who play there in Super Rugby Pacific.

Instead, the Highlanders boss views Koroi as first-five who can also play at fullback if need be.

“It’s trying to learn XVs and where he fits in the XVs game,” Brown said.

“Obviously a lot of power wingers who operate in Super Rugby, and Vili’s obviously not the biggest man, so we’re trying to develop him as a first-five-eighth who can cover fullback.”

Without Koroi on the park at ANZ National Stadium on Saturday, Brown has recalled a familiar back three comprised of Scott Gregory, Sam Gilbert and fullback Connor Garden-Bachop.

The trio have been regulars for the Highlanders this season, although none of them started in the loss to the Brumbies five days ago.

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Their inclusions means rookie wing Vereniki Tikoisolomone’s wait for a Super Rugby Pacific debut goes on, with the electric Taranaki wing yet to make an appearance for the Highlanders since being called in as an injury replacement late last year.

Similarly to Koroi, Brown said he is reluctant to throw Tikoisolomone into the mixer until he further develops his game in training.

“He’s been developing really well. Obviously really green at this level of rugby, only been in New Zealand a couple of years, so his development’s more important than his opportunity.”

Elsewhere, Brown has named a fresh loose forward contingent which is headlined by Marino Mikaele-Tu’u’s return from injury.

The barnstorming No 8 adds firepower to the Highlanders’ back row, which also includes hard-working openside Billy Harmon and last week’s debutant Christian Lio-Willie at blindside.

Both Harmon and Lio-Willie earn their first starts of the year, with the former ruled out for the opening half of the campaign by a shoulder injury, while the latter impressed Brown enough against the Brumbies to warrant the No 6 jersey.

“Obviously Christian had an awesome debut coming off the bench against the Brumbies,” Brown said.

“Physically, very good ball-carrier and impacts the game well, and it’s good to have Marino back.

“Similar sort of player, very good carrier and very good operator in the width, and then finally with Billy being 100 percent fit and ready to go now, it’s great to get him back in the team and give Jimmy [James Lentjes] a little bit of a rest.”

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