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Highlanders put Aaron Smith back into starting side for Blues clash

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

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The Highlanders have brought captain Aaron Smith back into their starting lineup for their Super Rugby Pacific round four clash against the Blues in Albany on Friday.

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The decision reinstate Smith back into the No 9 jersey comes after head coach Tony Brown expressed his frustrations with last week’s dire 21-14 loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington, a result that keeps the Highlanders winless this season.

Brown made particular note of the below-par efforts of halfback Folau Fakatava, who he said must “learn not to take everyone on by himself” and “do his job better”.

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As such, Fakatava has dropped to the bench in place of Smith as part of five changes made to the starting lineup by Brown.

Four of those alterations – including change of personnel at halfback – come in the backline, where young rookie Mosese Dawai has been recalled into the starting team having last featured in the season-opener against the Chiefs.

In that match, Dawai endured a horror Super Rugby Pacific debut and was subsequently culled at half-time, with Brown later detailing his plans to further develop the 23-year-old in training before putting him back out on the park.

It seems now that Brown has seen enough in Dawai’s progression and development as a footballer to thrust him back into the starting XV, where he lines up on the left wing and forces last week’s debutant Liam Coombes-Fabling into the No 14 jersey.

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“Moses had a tough debut in difficult conditions in Queenstown and we just needed to give him time to get his confidence back,” Brown said in a statement.

“We feel he is back to where he should be and are looking forward to getting him out there and showing everyone what he can do.”

The reshuffled backline has resulted in the omission of Sam Gilbert, who had featured in every Highlanders match this season, as had centre Fetuli Paea, who has also been dropped in favour of Scott Gregory.

In the forward pack, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u earns his first start of the campaign at No 8, which has led to Gareth Evans shifting to openside flanker and Hugh Renton moving to the bench.

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The only other change in the starting side comes in the second row, where lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit is rewarded for his barnstorming cameo appearance last week to start alongside Josh Dickson.

As a result, Bryn Evans has dropped to the bench, where he and Renton are two of four new faces, with replacement tighthead prop Josh Hohneck coming back into the No 18 jersey after missing out to debutant Saula Ma’u last week.

Elsewhere, Ngatungane Punivai will make his first appearance of the year from the No 23 jersey as he fills the void left by Gregory.

Kick-off for Friday’s match at North Harbour Stadium is scheduled for 7:05pm.

Highlanders team to play the Blues

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Liam Coltman
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
5. Josh Dickson
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Gareth Evans
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (c)
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Mosese Dawai
12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen
13. Scott Gregory
14. Liam Coombes-Fabling
15. Connor Garden-Bachop

Reserves

16. Rhys Marshall
17. Daniel Lienert-Brown
18. Josh Hohneck
19. Bryn Evans
20. Hugh Renton
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Marty Banks
23. Ngatungane Punivai

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