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Highlanders refuse to close door on rookie wing after horror debut

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

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The Highlanders have refused to close the door on rookie wing Mosese Dawai after his rough introduction to Super Rugby Pacific last weekend.

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Dawai was culled at half-time of his side’s season-opening 26-16 defeat at the hands of the Chiefs in Queenstown last Saturday after he conceded a multitude of errors in his debut performance.

Whether it was poor body height into contact, wayward offloads, bad handling skills or a below-par kicking game, the 23-year-old struggled make a positive impact, but head coach Tony Brown isn’t dismayed by the youngster’s shaky effort.

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Speaking to media ahead of Friday’s South Island derby against the Crusaders, Brown explained that Dawai hadn’t been selected to play again this week as he was eager for experience and work rate against the might of the Christchurch-based franchise.

That has led to the retention of Josh Timu on the left wing and the shift of Sam Gilbert from fullback to the right wing to accomodate for injury returnee Connor Garden-Bachop.

However, Brown hasn’t ruled out the return of Dawai later on down the track after a few weeks of extra training to further prepare himself for the rigours of Super Rugby Pacific.

“Probably just wasn’t the right game this week, but it’s something that was definitely talked about,” Brown said when asked on Wednesday if he was tempted to play Dawai again this weekend.

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“I felt as though with the quality of the Crusaders, we just needed a little bit more experience and a little bit more, I guess, work rate around the field, but we’ll bring Moji [Dawai] back at some stage.

“We feel as though he’s going to be a big player for us this year. We’ve just got to try and get a little bit more experience into him and get him to be able to handle the intensity at this level.”

Brown holds a similar mindset towards Vereniki Tikoisolomone, another  inexperienced wing who has been brought into the Highlanders squad on a season-long injury cover deal after impressing for Taranaki in last year’s NPC.

Unlike Dawai, Tikoisolomone is yet to make his Super Rugby Pacific debut, with Brown labelling both players as “a bit of a project” before adding that he is hopeful of fielding the pair within a month’s time.

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“We got him [Tikoisolomone] in the side as a bit of a project and those two boys, Mose and Vereniki, have trained the house down, but they’re still not quite where we need them to take on the Crusaders,” Brown said.

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“We’ll get them there, hopefully, in the next three or four weeks and we can see them impact our team going forward.”

With that in mind, it seems the Highlanders have only a handful of wing options available for the foreseeable future.

Three of those options – Timu, Gilbert and Garden-Bachop – are all starting this weekend, but the Dunedin-based outfit have lost Jona Nareki to a ruptured ACL, while Solomon Alaimalo is continuing to work through personal issues.

Other contenders for starting roles on the wing include utility backs Scott Gregory and Ngatungane Punivai, as well as All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi, but Brown has opted to strengthen his outside back depth by picking up Liam Coombes-Fabling.

The Waikato speedster has been brought into the Highlanders camp on a short-term basis after an impressive NPC campaign last year, leaving Brown in admiration of the 23-year-old’s abilities.

“Liam has joined us, just on a short-term contract, but he’s someone that’s got a huge work rate and has got a lot of x-factor as well, so looking forward to getting him in and around our environment a bit more,” Brown said.

“Hopefully, over the next couple of weeks, he can push for selection as well.”

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