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Highlanders forced to pick non-contracted players for Blues rematch

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by James Allan/Getty Images)

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The Highlanders are likely to field many new players this weekend when they square off against the Blues for the second time in a row as they continue to recover from a Covid outbreak within their squad.

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The Highlanders were one of three New Zealand-based Super Rugby Pacific teams – alongside the Blues and Crusaders – that were unable to field teams last weekend due to numerous positive cases of the virus within each of their camps.

As such, three round five fixtures were postponed last weekend, meaning the Highlanders will now play the Blues in back-to-back matches after having faced them in round four two weeks ago.

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The Dunedin-based franchise suffered a 32-20 defeat in that match at North Harbour Stadium in Albany, despite holding a 13-3 lead at half-time.

The result leaves the Highlanders winless this season, and their task of notching a first-up victory will be made that much more difficult as players continue to work their way back from Covid.

Assistant coach Clarke Dermody revealed on Tuesday that, with players slowly returning to training this week, his side will be reliant on the services of non-contracted players from outside the squad for the Blues clash on Saturday.

“We’ve definitely had to pull guys in. A lot of the players in the replacement pool have already been to other teams as well, so they’ve either been through a pre-season or been in teams for two or three weeks already,” Dermody said.

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“Those guys are fit and ready, so it’s pretty pleasing that we can call on guys that are at a good level to be able to come in and do a job.”

Dermody wouldn’t detail which replacement players have been brought into the Highlanders to act as cover, but indicated some will feature at Forsyth Barr Stadium this weekend.

“Not just yet,” he said when asked to name which new players had joined the Highlanders squad. “That will become pretty clear later in the week.”

Covid isn’t the only nuisance the Highlanders currently have to deal with, as injuries have also taken a toll on the southerners.

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In-form midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen and injury replacement wing Liam Coombes-Fabling both left the recent Blues match with injuries and have been sidelined for between two and six weeks.

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Together, they join an injury list that also includes wings Josh Timu (knee) and Jona Nareki (knee), lock Pari Pari Parkinson (knee), flanker Billy Harmon (shoulder) and midfielder Patelesio Tomkinson (foot).

While Umaga-Jensen will be a particularly big loss given his significant contributions to the Highlanders this season, Dermody said the 24-year-old’s groin strain was only a minor concern after his wretched run of injuries in recent years.

“My understanding was two-to-four weeks is what the return-to-play [timeframe] is. Obviously we had one week, so I guess he’ll have to start progressing through his return-to-play soon,” Dermody said.

“I guess the pleasing thing is it wasn’t one of Thomas’ normal injuries. He plays the game so hard that, when he gets hurt, it’s normally a big one, so it’s just a slight ding and he’ll be back out there soon.”

Without Umaga-Jensen on deck this week, Dermody implored the Highlanders to prepare for a fast-paced game against the Blues, whose kicking game he said presents a major threat to his side.

“They definitely are playing a lot more upbeat style of footy. Still kick the ball a lot, though, and that’s something we need to expect,” Dermody said of the Blues.

“We didn’t quite get that right, the contestable game after half-time. That’s what gave the Blues field position and then opportunity in our 22. Like I say, it’s pretty fresh in the mind, and we know where we need to go.”

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