The majority of the match day squad that came from behind to beat the Chiefs at FMG Stadium Waikato a fortnight ago has been retained by the Highlanders for this Sunday’s clash with the Blues.

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There has, however, been a backline re-shuffle that has seen the return of All Blacks playmaker Josh Ioane to the starting side for the first time since Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off.

Fully recovered from a niggling groin injury, Ioane made his first appearance for the Dunedin club off the bench in the last-gasp 33-31 win over the Chiefs in Hamilton, and has now been named in the No. 10 jersey for the first time this year.

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Tony Brown speaks to media

The one-test star had previously been named to start at second-five and fullback in all his other outings for the Highlanders throughout 2020, but the team’s coaching staff have outlined their intent to maintain the 24-year-old in his preferred position.

“Josh, we see him coming on an impacting the game from No. 10,” Highlanders assistant coach Tony Brown said on Wednesday.

“Whether he starts there or comes off the bench there is still to be decided, but we don’t see moving him to fullback or second-five at this stage.”

His re-implementation in the pivot role forces his replacement Mitch Hunt, who has found himself in career-best form at this level over the past few weeks, to revert back to fullback, as he did when Ioane was brought onto the field last week.

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“Mitch has been outstanding for us and has really flourished with regular game time,” head coach Aaron Mauger said in a statement.

“We are truly blessed with the standard of first-fives we have in our squad and I would be confident with any of the three of them at the helm.

“Josh deserves his chance though as he has worked very hard to get back to full fitness and we saw some nice touches from him against the Chiefs.”

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That in-game re-shuffle also sparked a change in the midfield, with fullback Michael Collins moving into centre – the position of which he started his career in – in place of the out-of-sorts Rob Thompson.

Collins will now start at No. 13 to form a new midfield partnership with Sio Tomkinson, with Mauger highlighting the benefits the 27-year-old will bring from the position.

“Michael has been in good form, making good decisions and we believe he can make a real impact on the game from there,” Mauger said.

The only other alteration to the team comes on the bench, where third-string first-five Bryn Gatland fills the void left by Ioane in the No. 22 jersey.

As reported earlier this week, former All Blacks star Nehe Milner-Skudder remains out of the selection frame for the time being as he works his way back from a long-term shoulder injury.

Signs appear promising as he returns to full contact training for the first time since signing with the Highlanders in May, but Brown indicated on Wednesday that the 29-year-old might not play for the franchise until next year.

“It would have been great to get Nehe out there three or four weeks ago, but we’ve just got to make sure that he’s a hundred percent confident in his shoulder,” Brown said.

“He’s been through the work, and if he can prove that he is good enough to fit into the side, then we’ll select him.”

The Highlanders will be aiming to retain the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy at Forsyth Barr Stadium, having not lost the highly-sought silverware since 2012.

Additionally, victory would keep their faint Super Rugby Aotearoa title chances alive while also putting a significant dent in the Blues’ aspirations of ending their 17-year championship drought.

Highlanders team to face Blues:

1. Ayden Johnstone, 2. Ash Dixon (cc), 3. Jeff Thwaites, 4. Pari Pari Parkinson, 5. Jack Whetton, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. Dillon Hunt, 8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 9. Aaron Smith (cc), 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Scott Gregory, 12. Patelesio Tomkinson, 13. Michael Collins, 14. Josh McKay, 15. Mitch Hunt

Reserves: 16. Liam Coltman, 17. Ethan De Groot, 18. Siate Tokolahi, 19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20. Jesse Parete, 21. Folau Fakatava, 22. Bryn Gatland, 23. Jona Nareki

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