There are bound to be a number of puzzled onlookers confused about Highlanders head coach Tony Brown’s decision to slot Josh Ioane, his premier first-five, at fullback for this weekend’s clash against the Hurricanes.
That’s understandable, given the last time Ioane played in the position at this level was in a pre-season match against the Crusaders at the beginning of last year.
However, there is reasoning behind the master tactician’s madness, as he revealed to media in Dunedin on Wednesday.
Following his side’s 39-17 trouncing at the hands of the Blues in Auckland last week, Brown has figured that Ioane has been bogged down by the responsibility required of him as his team’s chief playmaker.
Playing in arguably rugby’s most important position, Brown suggested the burden Ioane feels of having to guide his side around the park is restricting his test-level talents as a ball-playing pivot.
It’s for that reason, then, that Mitch Hunt has been called back into the starting XV in the No 10 jersey to overtake that responsibility while Ioane has been cast at No 15.
In doing so, Brown has afforded the one-test All Black with the luxury of more freedom on the ball, more space to work with and less playmaking responsibility in the hope that Ioane can rekindle his best form at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday night.
“Mitch has been performing really well for us,” Brown said.
“He gives us the control we need and he just leads the team from that No 10 position, and I just want to take a bit of that pressure off Josh Ioane and get him just playing rugby and it’s easier to do that from fullback.”
It’s one of many changes Brown has made to his match day side as the squad prepares for the challenge the winless Wellingtonians are set to impose on their southern rivals.
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After being battered and bruised by a powerful Blues side that have established themselves as genuine title threats, the Highlanders have used their bye week to refresh and recharge.
Over that same period, Brown took the opportunity to survey his options and pinpoint what exactly went wrong in the Dunedin franchise’s lacklustre performance at Eden Park two weeks ago.
He concluded changes needed to be made across the board for this week’s clash – cut the dead weight, retain those who have performed well and hand players who have had limited or no game time a chance to shine.
“Heading into the Blues game, we always wanted to make a few changes and give a few guys some opportunities,” Brown said.
“Obviously it wasn’t the performance we were after, so we made a few changes this week to give some guys that opportunity but bring back some guys who have been performing pretty well.”
All up, those alterations have resulted in seven personnel changes to the starting lineup, and a further six new faces on the bench.
The positional switch of Hunt and Ioane is the most notable of all the changes, but three of the most significant new additions come in the form of lock Pari Pari Parkinson, wing Freedom Vahaakolo and reserve midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen.
The trio all bring with them something that was noticeably absent in not only the defeat to the Blues, but also in the Highlanders’ season-opening loss to the Crusader last month – strength, power and brute force.
The Blues and Crusaders boast the two best forward packs in Super Rugby Aotearoa. The former side has the biggest and most powerful pack in the country, while their backline – starring the likes of Caleb Clarke and Rieko Ioane – pack a punch too.
The four-time reigning champions, meanwhile, have the most well-drilled forwards in New Zealand and have their own power-based backs through Leicester Fainga’anuku and Dallas McLeod.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 24, 2021
It’s no surprise, then, that the Highlanders struggled physically against both teams, which is why Brown has called in Parkinson, Vahaakolo and Umaga-Jensen.
With dimensions of 2.04m and 130kg, Parkinson stands as one of the biggest players in New Zealand and is bound to provide the Highlanders with plenty of steel up front following a long injury battle that saw him undergo a full ankle reconstruction.
Friday’s clash will be his first competitive match since last August, and Brown is hopeful Parkinson will throw his hefty frame around with devastating impact.
“Exciting for us to get Pari back. He’s been rehabbing really well, and he’s someone that we need at the moment around physicality in our forward pack,” Brown said.
Umaga-Jensen, named on the bench and set to face off against his twin brother and Hurricanes reserve midfielder Peter, has gone through a similar journey, as a troublesome shoulder injury has kept him out of Super Rugby action since 2019.
Now fit and firing, the 23-year-old is primed and ready to wreak havoc against the Hurricanes as one of the biggest players in the Highlanders’ backline.
“He’s had some terrible injuries over the last couple of years, so it’s good to get him back out there. He’ll hopefully make a pretty big impact off the bench and I know he’s excited to play his brother,” Brown said.
“Thomas is a big man. I think he’s weighing in at 113kg and he’s fast and got good skills as well, so having a big midfielder like that coming on with 20 to go, hopefully he’s going to get a lot of ball in hand.”
Vahaakolo, on the other hand, has taken a completely different path to get to this stage. After impressing in the Auckland grassroots scene, the 23-year-old moved to Dunedin in a bid to launch his professional career.
Handed an opportunity with Otago in the Mitre 10 Cup, the powerhouse wing excelled in the Kiwi provincial competition and was rewarded with a place in the Highlanders squad as injury cover earlier this year.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 24, 2021
Vahaakolo’s rapid rise will continue this weekend when he makes his Super Rugby Aotearoa debut on the right wing, which is where Brown wants the short but stocky speedster to let rip on the Hurricanes’ defence.
“He’s come down south for an opportunity to play professional rugby and he’s made a pretty good fist of it so far and I think it’s time for him to show everyone what he’s got,” Brown said.
“He’s a power athlete. We’ve got some speed out wide, but we don’t have a lot of power, so we’re hoping he’s going to give us that physicality in the width that we’re after.
“He’s got plenty of X-factor. Hopefully we’ll see it Friday night.”
Vahaakolo will join provincial teammate Jona Nareki as his wing partner, despite concerns regarding the latter’s hip pointer niggle sustained during the Blues loss.
Brown is, however, taking a cautious approach and is waiting on how Nareki progresses through training for the remainder of the week before locking the 23-year-old in for Friday’s match.
Should he fail to prove his fitness, he won’t be replaced in the match day side by either Solomon Alaimalo or Nehe Milner-Skudder, as Brown confirmed both were still on the comeback trail from their respective shoulder injuries.
“He’s a few weeks off coming back in and being at his best. He’s actually a bit unwell at the moment, so we’re not able to select him,” Brown said of Alaimalo.
Of Milner-Skudder, he added: “Nehe’s come off a horrific operation, so he’s not far away, but still not quite there around being able to play Super.
“I think it’s more a case of game time. He just needs a lot more game time and then once he gets confidence in his shoulder and in the contact area, then into the selection conversation.”
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