The Highlanders have been dealt an injury blow less than a fortnight out from their Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener.
RugbyPass learned over the weekend three-test Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley is thought to be ruled out for the majority of the New Zealand-based competition due to a high ankle sprain sustained last week.
Ainsley, a new recruit for the Highlanders having joined the franchise on a two-year deal following five seasons of Super Rugby in Australia, was named to start for the Dunedin side in the second half of last Friday’s pre-season clash with the Crusaders in Temuka.
However, the Otago born-and-raised front rower was absent from the encounter altogether, with Josh Hohneck, who wasn’t named in the initial side at all, and Siate Tokolahi sharing the tighthead prop role.
Neither could help steer the Highlanders to victory in Ainsley’s absence, with the visitors blowing a 26-0 half-time lead to lose 28-26.
The loss of Ainsley, who has 60 Super Rugby caps split between the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels since departing Otago Boys’ High School in 2012, leaves the Highlanders without one of their nine internationals.
Having debuted for the Wallabies against the All Blacks in 2018, the 25-year-old played a further two tests against Italy and England later that year and became an important figure within the Rebels set-up.
He joined Brave Blossoms star Kazuki Himeno as one of two key offshore-based signings for the Highlanders ahead of the upcoming season, but will now have to bide his time before returning to action.
Current All Blacks Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell, previous All Blacks Liam Squire, Josh Ioane, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Bryn Evans, and two-test Tongan midfielder Fetuli Paea are the others with international experience at the Highlanders.
No announcement has yet been made about when Ainsley can be expected to return or who his injury cover replacement will be in the squad.
The loss of Ainsley would be a further blow to the franchise’s front row stocks, with Stuff reporting that Ayden Johnstone is still recovering from a concussion sustained while training with the North Island ahead of last year’s North vs South clash.
Furthermore, Evans (ribs) was one of two players, along with fellow lock Josh Dickson (head knock), to pick up injuries in the pre-season defeat to the Crusaders, although neither of those injuries are thought to be serious.
With the kick-off of Super Rugby broadening on the horizon, a panel of RugbyPass writers have ranked the ten best No. 8s in New Zealand and Australia.https://t.co/7bR39rupKE
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 15, 2021
Meanwhile, the Highlanders could have this week’s pre-season match with the Hurricanes in Alexandra cancelled due to the rise of COVID-19 alert levels across New Zealand.
Auckland was sent into a three-day Level 3 lockdown on Sunday evening after a family of three tested positive for the virus under unknown circumstances, while the rest of the country entered alert Level 2.
Under Level 2 restrictions, the match could go ahead, but no crowd – which had expected to be between 6000 and 8000 – would be allowed at the game.
Other complexities, such as the two sides travelling to and from Dunedin and Wellington, added to the uncertainty of the fixture, Highlander chief executive Roger Clark told media on Monday.
The Highlanders are scheduled to kick-off the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin next Friday.
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