All things being equal, they can call on Elliot Dixon, Shannon Frizell, Liam Squire and Jackson Hemopo, not to mention young tyro Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Luke Whitelock, plus fetchers Dillon Hunt and James Lentjes, who are not complete strangers to the position.
Whitelock will likely feature mainly at No 8, where he played 15 of the 18 games last season. Josh Dickson even had a run in the Highlanders No 6 jersey in 2018. Elliot Dixon, said to be looking sharp after an off-season in Japan, started six games, though he is unlikely to add to his three All Blacks caps in 2016, despite his ability to suit up in all three loose positions.
Squire’s injury woes restricted him to six starts, while Frizell made four starts, mainly offering impact off the pine. But his ball-carrying power saw him play his way into the All Blacks. Hemopo played 16 games at lock, but the All Blacks used him mainly as a blindside.
Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett sees it as an unusual situation, but is confident he can give enough game time to all concerned to keep them, and the All Blacks selectors, happy.
“Certainly it will be good competition, which will bring out the best in them. We’ve also got a couple of those guys who can play in several positions. Jackson and Shannon have played a bit at lock,” says Hammett.
“We’ve had no direction (from the All Blacks) around Jackson, but we’ll certainly try to get him time at No 6 and that’s ultimately where we believe his position is.”
The use of Hemopo on the side of the scrum may depend on how well Tasman lock Pari Pari Parkinson takes to regular Super Rugby.
Indications are he will make a good fist of it, perhaps in partnership with the seasoned Tom Franklin.
While from the outside, it may appear that the Highlanders have stockpiled their blindside talent – a la the Crusaders at loosehead prop when Wyatt Crockett, Tim Perry and Joe Moody were on the books – the reality is not quite so black and white. Neither Hemopo nor Frizell were All Blacks this time 12 months ago, and in fact Frizell had appeared mainly at lock for Tasman in the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup. Both were seen by the Highlanders as second-row options.
All were contracted to the franchise.
“At lock, the physical side of the game is more challenging from a set-piece and counter set-piece perspective. There is probably not as much to learn from a strikes and maps perspective. They are two guys that really developed with the All Blacks and can play in that No 6 role,” says Hammett.
“We play a style, it’s no secret, that is quick and on top of teams. Pre-season is about getting physically and mentally ready to do all that. We feel all these guys can do that.”
The All Blacks will need to miss two games during Super Rugby and not play more than five fullish straight games.
Hammett says they have a plan, but “you cannot crystal ball gaze.”
Only Dixon of that quartet will see involvement in tomorrow night’s Farmlands Cup hitout against the Crusaders in Southbridge. Hammett confirmed that all are fit for selection in next Friday’s competition opener against the Chiefs in Hamilton. Just don’t expect them all to
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