Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger is hopeful one-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane will return for the Dunedin club in time for next week’s southern derby against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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The star playmaker’s return from a niggling groin injury would be timely and well-received by the Highlanders, who fell short 27-24 against the Blues at Eden Park last night.

“Josh is on track,” Mauger said following the defeat. “He ran today [Saturday]. We got a good report that he was back up to 100 per cent running.

“We’ve just got to make sure with that groin we get through a bit of kicking early in the week, and we can make a decision on his availability.”

Filling in the No. 10 jersey in the absence of Ioane was Hunt, who was particularly impressive in Auckland on Saturday evening as he scored a try and kicked an additional nine points off the boot.

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However, Hunt could be the missing piece to the puzzle at fullback should Ioane return to No. 10, with youngster Scott Gregory enduring a torrid night with ball in hand.

The 21-year-old had a kick charged down that led directly to one of Dalton Papalii’s two tries, while he also struggled under the high ball.

“It was a tough night for Scotty,” Mauger said of the All Blacks Sevens star. “I thought he did some things well but obviously didn’t quite execute some of the work under the high ball.”

As the fifth player deployed at fullback this year by the Highlanders – after Josh McKay, Michael Collins, Hunt and Vilimoni Koroi – now may be the time to inject some selection consistency in that position.

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Nehe Milner-Skudder’s anticipated debut against his former side, the Hurricanes, could be done from fullback, but a seemingly serious knee injury to Sam Gilbert may open a place for the ex-All Black on the right wing to keep Hunt at No. 15.

The 21-year-old Cantabrian left the field in the first half and was seen in crutches throughout the remainder of the game, which could open avenues for playing time for the likes of Josh McKay, Michael Collins, Ngane Punivai, Tima Fainga’anuku and Chris Kuridrani.

“It’s his knee, but I’m not exactly sure what he’s hurt there,” Mauger said of Gilbert’s injury. “He’s pretty sore. He limped in on crutches so medical will have a look and get a report on him in the next couple of days.”

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