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Highlanders name surprise new No 10 in shock positional switch for Force clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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The Highlanders have sprung a surprise in their team selection for Friday’s Super Rugby Pacific clash against the Western Force, naming outside back Sam Gilbert at first-five.

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Gilbert, a fullback and wing by trade, takes the place of the benched Mitch Hunt in the No 10 jersey, where he played his schoolboy rugby at St Andrew’s College.

Highlanders head coach Tony Brown said that despite Gilbert’s complete inexperience as a first-five in professional rugby, he has confidence in the 23-year-old’s skillset to succeed as the team’s chief playmaker in Dunedin.

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“Sam has a good all round skill set, kicks well out of hand and off the tee, is a strong defender, communicates well and is an elusive runner,” Brown said.

“Although he hasn’t played 10 at this level, we believe he has the aptitude to lead us around the field. Mitch plays well off the bench, so we believe it will be a good combination.”

The selection of Gilbert at first-five for this weekend’s crunch match with the Force, who the Highlanders are competing with for the eighth and final playoff spot, is one of just a few changes made to Brown’s starting side.

Only one alteration has been made in the forward pack, where Andrew Makalio replaces former All Blacks hooker Liam Coltman, who misses out through injury.

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A reshuffle of the backline, meanwhile, sees in-form midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen return to second-five after three matches at centre.

Umaga-Jensen’s normal midfield partner, two-test Tongan international Fetuli Paea, has moved out to the right wing to fill the void left by Gilbert, while wing Josh Timu has been picked at centre after making his injury return against the Reds last week.

Elsewhere, Hunt is one of three new faces on the bench, joining rookie Dutch lock Fabian Holland and injury replacement wing Liam Coombes-Fabling – both of whom replace Max Hicks and Timu, respectively – in the reserves.

After picking up just their third win of the season in Brisbane, and second victory on the bounce, Brown is optimistic that his side can push on to clinch a finals berth with three games to play in the regular season.

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“At least our destiny is in our own hands now and if we can keep winning – we make the playoffs, which of course is easier said than done,” he said.

“We must continue to grow as a team and improve each week if we are to be contenders in this competition. There are a number of teams playing good rugby at the moment and we know we haven’t put a complete performance out on the park yet.”

Kick-off for Friday’s match at Forsyth Barr Stadium is scheduled for 7:05pm NZT.

Highlanders team to play Western Force

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Andrew Makalio
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Bryn Evans
5. Josh Dickson
6. James Lentjes (co-c)
7. Billy Harmon
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (co-c)
10. Sam Gilbert
11. Scott Gregory
12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen
13. Josh Timu
14. Fetuli Paea
15. Connor Garden-Bachop

Reserves

16. Rhys Marshall
17. Daniel Lienert-Brown
18. Saula Ma’u
19. Fabian Holland
20. Hugh Renton
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Mitch Hunt
23. Liam Coombes-Fabling

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