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Highlanders reveal reasoning behind Sam Gilbert's shock selection at No 10

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

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It may have come as a surprise to the rugby public, but the Highlanders say the selection of Sam Gilbert at first-five is anything but.

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In fact, assistant coach Clarke Dermody said on Wednesday that Gilbert, normally a wing or fullback, has been played out of position for years.

A first-five during his days as a schoolboy at St Andrew’s College in Christchurch, Gilbert has also featured at No 10 at club level in Dunedin, but has never played in the role since his first-class debut three years ago.

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That will change this weekend when he steers the ship for the Highlanders against the Western Force at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.

The decision to name Gilbert at first-five caught many off-guard, but Dermody said the 23-year-old has the skillset required to thrive there this weekend.

“It’s obviously a surprise to anyone outside of the team,” Dermody, the Highlanders forwards coach, said.

“What we see is a guy with a good skillset for 10. Obviously not my area of expertise, but he’s been running the team really well this week and looking forward to seeing how he goes in there.

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“He’s had a couple of club games there, and he was also a 10 at school, so, effectively, he’s been out-of-position for a couple of years for us on the wing and at fullback, which is probably his other position, but this week he gets another crack at 10.”

Among the positives Gilbert offers as a first-five, his sizeable physical frame is possibly the most alluring for the Highlanders, whose selection of the youngster is perhaps indicative that they eager for more from their chief playmakers with ball-in-hand.

Standing at 1.88m and 98kg, Gilbert is 10cm taller and 10kg heavier than regular starter Mitch Hunt, who has been demoted to the bench.

As such, Gilbert is set to provide the Highlanders with a different dimension than what they have become accustomed to this season.

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“Obviously trusting Brownie’s [head coach Tony Brown’s] instinct on it a wee bit because he obviously sees things a bit better than I do in those positions,” Dermody said.

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“But what he sees is a guy with natural ability, strong kicker, good tackler and distributes the ball well.

“I think it potentially indicates maybe a change of style in game we’ve been playing in the last few weeks. It’s probably all we can say at the moment.”

Despite his initial reluctance to give away too much information in the way of pre-game tactics, Dermody made note that Gilbert’s size and communication skills will be of particular use against a Force side the he said are direct in their attacking approach.

“Obviously [Gilbert is] a bit bigger under the high ball, and also, the way the Force play, they come through the front door, especially in the 22, so, early in the game, looking to negate that as well,” Dermody said.

“He’s a good communicator. Obviously when you’re not in that position, you don’t have to talk as much, so, this week, being put in there has put more on him to be able to do that.

“So far, this is without having our main training, he’s done a good job leading the team around.”

The idea of picking players seemingly out of position isn’t a new concept for teams coached by Tony Brown, who played picked current Waratahs No 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco as a second-five during their time at the Sunwolves in 2019.

That selection ploy worked to devastating effect as Warren-Vosayaco starred there for the now-defunct Japanese franchise, and Brown has since brought his unorthodox selection methods back with him to the Highlanders.

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Gilbert’s selection at first-five isn’t the first time Brown has toyed with the idea of playing an outside back in the No 10 role this season.

Last month, he revealed that he views hot-stepping sevens star Vilimoni Koroi as a first-five rather than a fullback or wing, which is where he has played most of his XVs rugby for the Highlanders and Otago.

Dermody said that Koroi – who has played just once in Super Rugby Pacific this year – was in contention to start at first-five this weekend, but the Highlanders selectors ultimately decided to opt for Gilbert.

“Unfortunately for Vili, he’s a genuine utility, so can cover a lot of positions in the backline. It was talked about for selection this week, but decided to go with Sam’s skillset.”

Dermody added that if Gilbert succeeds this weekend, he will remain a contender to push for further starting roles at first-five, but made it clear that the underperforming Hunt is still very much an option for his side.

“Obviously the team hasn’t been playing well, so when the team hasn’t been playing well in the first half of this competition, it’s hard to stand out as a 10,” Dermody said.

“I think Mitch had one of his better games on the weekend. We had some good go-forward ball from him, we were starting to use the ball a bit more, so we have that opportunity off the bench, hopefully the game’s freed up and we can use his running game a bit more.”

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