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Highlanders receive mixed injury news ahead of Hurricanes clash

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

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The Highlanders are likely to be without young wing Josh Timu for this weekend’s match against the Hurricanes following his knee injury against the Crusaders on Friday.

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Highlanders assistant coach Riki Flutey confirmed on Tuesday that the 24-year-old is facing a sideline spell after he left the field in the 19th minute of his side’s 34-19 Super Rugby Pacific defeat to their South Island rivals in Dunedin last week.

However, there is positive injury news in that All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot and vice-captain James Lentjes have both resumed training despite sustaining rib and neck injuries, respectively, during that match.

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“I think Josh Timu is getting evaluated today around his injury, so us as coaches will probably find that out tonight or tomorrow morning, around the extent of his injury, but Ethan and Jimmy Lentjes are both back in training,” Flutey said.

“Josh has been one of our most outstanding trainers and performers in the whole pre-season, so absolutely gutted for him around the injury, and hopefully it’s not a long stand down or not a long recovery period.”

Timu’s pre-season efforts had clearly caught the eyes of the Highlanders coaches as the 24-year-old started on the left wing in both of the franchise’s season-opening matches against the Chiefs and Crusaders.

The Highlanders will now be forced to field someone else in the No 11 jersey, which was dominated by the electric Jona Nareki in recent seasons, but he remains unavailable as he continues to recover from his ruptured ACL.

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Likewise, Solomon Alaimalo is out of action for personal reasons, leaving Scott Gregory, who started the Chiefs match at second-five before shifting to the wing for the second half, as the frontrunner to fill Timu’s void.

If the Highlanders do opt for Gregory, he would join right wing Sam Gilbert and fullback Connor Garden-Bachop as the side’s starting outside backs after the latter two players impressed in the opening fortnight of Super Rugby Pacific.

Other options available to the Highlanders include utility back Ngatungane Punivai, All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi, and injury replacement player Liam Coombes-Fabling.

Fijian pair Mosese Dawai and Vereniki Tikoisolomone could also come into the reckoning, but head coach Tony Brown last week said he is eager for them to continue their development in training before taking to the field in a few weeks’ time.

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“Sammy Gilbert, he’s been going really well. We’ve got some really good competition now in that back three for us. Unfortunately Josh got injured, so that just leaves an opportunity for someone else in that spot,” Flutey said.

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“We’ve got Scott Gregory, also, who’s available, who’s played outstandingly for us, both in the midfield and on the wing.

“We’ve got the likes of Ngane Punivai, who’s back training with us as well after some time off with injury, so there’s some good competition going on, especially in that back three spot.”

Timu’s injury also brought into question the Highlanders’ makeup of their bench, which, against the Crusaders, featured six forwards and two backs rather than the usual five forwards and three backs.

The six-two split has been commonly used by Brown during his reign as Highlanders head coach, and he made note last week that he included an extra loose forward, in the form of Hugh Renton, as that was an area of strength for his side.

Concerns arose, though, when Timu – a former Sunwolves wing who is also the son of ex-All Blacks and Kiwis representative John – left the field unexpectedly and prematurely as the Highlanders had little cover for their backs on the bench.

Veteran first-five Marty Banks came on as Timu’s replacement and acquitted himself well in his makeshift role, but fullback isn’t his primary position, and the fact he had to play there exposed the downside to having one less back on the bench.

Flutey said the Highlanders used the six-two split on the weekend to negate the threat posed by the Crusaders’ all-star forward pack, but made note that discussions have been held about reverting back to a five-three split against the Hurricanes.

“It’s definitely been something that we’ve talked about,” he said.

“The six-two on the weekend, we knew the Crusaders have got an outstanding forward pack, and we knew our boys, particularly our forwards, were going to have to work hard and work for long periods of time. That’s probably where the six-two came.”

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