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Highlanders promote Japan star into starting lineup as Aaron Smith benched for Crusaders clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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The Highlanders have promoted Japan star Kazuki Himeno to their starting side for Friday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa clash against the Crusaders in Christchurch.


Himeno was a standout off the bench for the Dunedin-based franchise in their 30-19 defeat to the Hurricanes last week, getting himself involved frequently and making a strong impact against tiring opponents.

The 26-year-old has been rewarded with a starting role for this week’s South Island derby after being named at No 8.

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Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody speaks to media
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Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody speaks to media

In doing so, he takes the place of Hawke’s Bay youngster Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, who has been listed by the Highlanders as unavailable, but not because of injury.

Star playmaker Josh Ioane has also fallen under this category, as has hard-hitting midfielder Patelesio Tomkinson, neither of whom have been named in the match day side despite playing prominent roles for the Highlanders this season.

As a result, last week’s first-five Mitch Hunt has retained his place in the No 10 jersey, while Connor Garden-Bachop has moved to fullback with Northland speedster Scott Gregory getting his first run of the year from the right wing.

Tomkinson’s place at second-five has been taken by Thomas Umaga-Jensen, who last week made a try-scoring return from a long injury lay-off that kept him out of Super Rugby action since 2019.


Electric wing Jona Nareki, meanwhile, has been called back into the starting team after missing last week’s match due to a hip pointer injury, and halfback Folau Fakatava has snatched a starting role off co-captain Aaron Smith.

The change at No 9 comes after Smith became the Highlanders’ most-capped player of all-time against the Hurricanes, where he broke Ben Smith’s total of 153 appearances.

Aaron Smith, who re-signed with the Highlanders and New Zealand Rugby through until 2023, has been open about how he needs to be preserved until the next World Cup in France.

That has opened the door for the highly-promising Fakatava, who also recently extended his Highlanders contract by two years after being circled by rival clubs, to earn more substantial game time with the franchise, as evidenced by his promotion this week.


On the bench, flanker Hugh Renton returns to the match day side to fill the void left by Himeno in the reserves, while Hawke’s Bay playmaker Caleb Makene is in line for his Super Rugby debut after being named at No 22 in the wake of Ioane’s unavailability.

Highlanders team to play Crusaders

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Ash Dixon (co-c)
3. Siate Tokolahi
4. Bryn Evans
5. Pari Pari Parkinson
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Billy Harmon
8. Kazuki Himeno
9. Folau Fakatava
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Jona Nareki
12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen
13. Michael Collins
14. Scott Gregory
15. Connor Garden-Bachop


16. Liam Coltman
17. Ayden Johnstone
18. Josh Hohneck
19. Josh Dickson
20. Hugh Renton
21. Aaron Smith (co-c)
22. Caleb Makene
23. James Lentjes


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