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Highlanders name young XV eager to upset table-topping Blues

By Ned Lester
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens of the Highlanders looks on during the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Moana Pasifika at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on February 24, 2024, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy isn’t the only thing on the line for the Highlanders this weekend in Auckland, as the team continue to fight for a place in the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs.


Currently sitting in seventh place with three tough matchups ahead of them, the Highlanders’ young squad face a mammoth challenge to finish the season.

For the Blues game, they’ve selected their strongest available 23 and again named All Balck Ethan de Groot as captain. The 25-year-old will be backed up by Ayden Johnstone who brings up 50 Highlanders games should he take the field at Eden Park.

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Henry Bell and Jermaine Ainsley join the captain in the starting front row, while Mitch Dunshea and Fabian Holland retain the starting second-row honours.

Oliver Haig, Sean Withy and Nikora Broughton make up the loose forward unit after strong showings in the team’s recent win over the Crusaders.

Folau Fakatava will link up with young gun Cam Millar once more in the halves, with the 21-year-old fresh off a coming-of-age performance in round 12.

Argentine Martín Bogado and the impressive Timoci Tavatavanawai line up on the wings, with the electric Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens suiting up in the No. 15 jersey once more.


Jake Te Hiwi and Tanielu Tele’a reconnect in the midfield for the crucial contest.

Jamie Joseph emphasised how special it was to play for the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy, having been coached by the great man himself.

“Gordie was a really special coach, and he had the ability to motivate his players like no other coach I’ve met. We have been talking about Gordie this week in the team and they feel honoured to be able to play for him this weekend. He belongs back home in Dunedin.”

That sentiment was echoed by coach Clarke Dermody.

“We were happy with how the team executed the plan last week and they have all retained their spots, but this is a new week and a new challenge, we’ve reset and are working hard in getting our preparation right for this weekend.”


Highlanders team to play the Blues

  1. Ethan de Groot (c)
  2. Henry Bell
  3. Jermaine Ainsley
  4. Mitch Dunshea
  5. Fabian Holland
  6. Oliver Haig
  7. Sean Withy
  8. Nikora Broughton
  9. Folau Fakatava
  10. Cameron Millar
  11. Martín Bogado
  12. Jake Te Hiwi
  13. Tanielu Tele’a
  14. Timoci Tavatavanawai
  15. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens



16. Jack Taylor
17. Ayden Johnstone
18. Saula Ma’u
19. Will Tucker
20. Will Stodart
21. James Arscott
22. Sam Gilbert
23. Finn Hurley

Injured/unavailable: Jonah Lowe (knee), Hugh Renton (ankle), Rhys Patchell (pec), Jona Nareki (hamstring), Matt Whaanga (shoulder), Ricky Jackson (hamstring), Billy Harmon (hand), Connor Garden-Bachop (HIA), Josh Timu (ankle)


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Jon 1 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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