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Highlanders hit with injury blow as ex-England star set for sideline spell

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

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The Highlanders have revealed ex-England flyer Denny Solomona has been sidelined with a hamstring injury as they embark on their first offshore tour of the year.

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The Dunedin-based franchise head into this week’s Super Round in Melbourne in search of just their second win of the Super Rugby Pacific season.

At AAMI Park on Sunday, they will come up against the second-placed Brumbies before jetting off to Suva to take on the Fijian Drua in what will be their first-ever home Super Rugby match at ANZ National Stadium.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

The following week, the Highlanders will return to Australia to face the Reds at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, meaning they will be on the road for the next three rounds.

However, they have travelled abroad without Solomona, the five-test England wing who joined the Highlanders as a mid-season injury replacement after returning to New Zealand following many years overseas.

Much was made of Solomona’s addition to the Highlanders set-up, and the 28-year-old wing made his debut for his new team in their 17-14 defeat to the Crusaders three weeks ago.

Since then, Solomona has featured two more times, against Moana Pasifika and the Hurricanes, but left the field early in last week’s tense 22-21 defeat at the hands of the Wellingtonians at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

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Speaking to media on Thursday, Highlander assistant coach Riki Flutey revealed Solomona departed with a hamstring injury, that will leave him sidelined for an indefinite period, resulting in his absence from the tour of Australia and Fiji.

“A big loss, Denny, particularly earlier on in the game. He picked up a hamstring injury as well. I’m not too sure off the top of my head how long his injury’s going to be. I don’t think he will be on the plane,” Flutey said.

Solomona isn’t the only new injury concern for the Highlanders, as No 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u has also been ruled out with a hamstring issue, although Flutey said he is likely to travel with the squad.

“Marino has got an injury, a soft-tissue injury – hamstring. He should be on the plane. Hopefully it’s just a one-to-two weeker but he’s been training and running really well over the last couple of days.”

Those injuries – as well as the suspension of Josh Dickson, who is in the midst of a three-week ban after being sent off for a high tackle against Hurricanes prop Tevita Mafileo – have necessitated numerous changes to the Highlanders lineup.

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Two-test Tongan international Fetuli Paea reconnects his midfield partnership with Thomas Umaga-Jensen in place of Solomona, while lock Sam Caird and loose forward Christian Lio-Willie are both in line for their Highlanders debuts.

Caird, a former Waratahs second rower, comes in as a straight swap for Dickson, while Lio-Willie will feature off the bench as part of a six-two split in the reserves.

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Exciting wing Freedom Vahaakolo has also been named on the right wing in what will be just his third Super Rugby appearance across two seasons.

“Freedom’s been training really over the last few weeks for us,” Flutey said.

“He’s shown his qualities as an attacking threat, and if he gets the ball in space or taking on one-on-one defenders, then we know he’s got the qualities to be able to beat players and create opportunities for us, and also finish opportunities.

“We’re looking forward to Freedom out on the wing.”

The absence of rested co-captain Aaron Smith, which has paved the way for prodigious halfback Folau Fakatava to come into the starting side, is another major talking point, as is the Highlanders’ surprise revival of the dual-playmaking structure.

Veteran first-five Marty Banks has retained his spot in the No 10 jersey after earning a rare start last week, with usual pivot Mitch Hunt named at fullback.

Flutey said Banks and Hunt have good chemistry between each other, which he anticipates will bring the best out of each other this weekend.

“That combination between the two of them worked really well out on the field. They’ve both got awesome qualities. Marty Banks, as we know, can control a game really well,” Flutey said.

“He’s got an amazing kicking game and takes a bit of pressure off Mitch, playing him at the back. As you saw with his counter-attack ability to set up that try we got, it’s awesome. We’re looking forward to seeing that combination coming through again.”

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