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Highlanders lose All Black for Waratahs clash as test duo near injury returns

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

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The Highlanders have lost one international but will gain another for this weekend’s Super Rugby Pacific clash against the Waratahs in Dunedin.

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In the midst of a three-match winning streak that has revived their previously dwindling season, the Highlanders need just one more victory to virtually cement their place in the competition’s quarter-finals, which kick-off in a fortnight.

Eager to lock in their top spot against the sixth-placed Waratahs at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Sunday, the southerners will have to do so without All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot, who will miss the match through a mandatory All Blacks rest week.

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A regular starter for the Highlanders, De Groot’s absence will left his side bereft of size, power, mobility and scrummaging prowess, all of which are hallmarks of the four-test international’s game.

However, the loss of De Groot will be offset by the return of five-test England wing Denny Solomona, who is fit and available for selection after missing the Highlanders’ recent three-match tour of Australia and Fiji due to a hamstring injury.

Solomona, an injury replacement player called into the Highlanders squad midway through this year’s campaign, has impressed in the few appearances he has made for the franchise since relocating to New Zealand from England.

As such, it wouldn’t surprise to see the 28-year-old thrust back into the starting lineup straight away as the Highlanders continue to chase a playoffs spot.

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Their hunt for a top eight finish could also be aided by the potential return of All Blacks loose forward Shannon Frizell, who Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody said on Tuesday was nearing a return from injury.

Frizell has been sidelined since he hurt his knee in the opening minutes of his side’s win over Moana Pasifika six weeks ago, but the 17-test international, who was a standout for the Highlanders prior to his injury, could be back in action by next week.

“Shannon is not quite ready, but he’s not too far away, which is promising heading into the games we’ve got,” Dermody said as he suggested that Frizell might be available for next week’s match between the Highlanders and the Rebels in Melbourne.

That fixture will be the final match of the regular season for both teams, and if the Highlanders do secure a place in the Super Rugby Pacific post-season, Frizell’s return would be a significant boost to their hopes of progressing through the play-offs.

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“He’s sort of back running and starting back into training with us, so maybe that game,” Dermody said of Frizell’s possible comeback against the Rebels.

“It’ll be a pretty close call, though, I think for that week, but potentially the week after if we get that far.”

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Of those available for this week’s match against the Waratahs, youngster Sam Gilbert appears to be the frontrunner to retain the No 10 jersey after producing a top-class performance in his maiden outing as a Highlanders first-five last weekend.

The 23-year-old, who had only ever played wing or fullback in his professional career, was a key figure in his side’s emphatic 61-10 win over the Western Force last Friday.

After landing all eight of his shots at goal and looking comfortable in his role as the team’s chief playmaker, Gilbert’s chances of selection at first-five have been increased by the head knock sustained by Mitch Hunt late in that game.

Hunt clashed heads with veteran Force midfielder Richard Kahui in what was deemed by the officials to be a high tackle, leading to a red card against the World Cup-winning former All Black.

While Kahui’s dismissal was relinquished by the SANZAAR judicial committee on Tuesday, Dermody said Hunt is yet to prove his full fitness following his head knock, indicating that Gilbert is in line for a second successive start at first-five.

“Who would have known? There was a lot of doubt around that,” Dermody said.

“I guess the one person that knew was Brownie [Highlanders head coach Tony Brown]. He knows his players and really happy for Sam.

“He controlled the team really well and a bit of a point of difference on his running game, being able to offload, he was able to bring that as well. Really happy for him. Puts his name right in the hat for the 10 jersey.”

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