Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava has been ruled out for the rest of the year after sustaining a knee injury against the Crusaders on Friday.

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Fakatava left the field gingerly in the second half during the shock 33-12 win at Orangetheory Stadium, and subsequent scan results confirmed the 21-year-old had fully torn his ACL in his right knee.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Highlanders said the injury will require an operation and a rehabilitation period of between nine and 12 months.

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The news will come as a significant blow to both Fakatava and the Highlanders as the youngster stood as one of the most in-form players in Super Rugby Aotearoa and was tipped by many to be in with a shout of All Blacks selection later this year.

Fakatava had formed a strong partnership with Highlanders co-captain and fellow halfback Aaron Smith whereby the duo provided a one-two punch for the Dunedin-based side regardless of who was starting and who came off the bench.

Earlier this year, both players signed two-year contract extensions that will keep them at the Highlanders until 2023, and hopes remain high down south that Fakatava will stay onboard beyond then as he is widely-regarded as Smith’s long-term successor.

Fakatava’s strong running game and hard-hitting defence will be sorely missed by the Highlanders, with head coach Tony Brown acknowledging the impact he has within the squad.

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“This is very tough on Folau,” Brown said. “He’s been playing outstanding rugby for us this season and he must have been in consideration for the All Blacks with his performances in Super Rugby Aotearoa and the Mitre 10 Cup.” 

“We are fortunate that we have an excellent replacement in Kayne Hammington who has been training hard for an opportunity, he is very experienced and knows our game well.”

Hammington, the franchise’s third-string halfback who hasn’t featured at all this year, is likely to be called upon as Smith’s back-up for the remainder of the season, while Otago halfback James Arscott has been called in as injury cover.

Fakatava’s season-ending blow is just the latest of a string of injuries the Highlanders have had to deal with in recent weeks and months.

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Three-test Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley and two-test Tongan midfielder Fetuli Paea are both yet to make their debuts for the Highlanders after sustaining season-ending ankle injuries before the season even kicked off.

Former All Blacks loose forward Liam Squire, who returned to the Highlanders this year following a one-season spell in Japan, has also been ruled out until next year after a troublesome knee injury flared up again last month.

Elsewhere, promising young midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen’s long-awaited injury comeback was limited to just two matches after his season was ended by a broken arm in the win over the Crusaders, while exciting wing Freedom Vahaakolo has been sidelined for the remainder of the campaign due to a fractured foot.

They have been replaced permanently in the squad by Otago midfielder Josh Timu and Southland utility back Josh Moorby.

Ex-All Blacks wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, meanwhile, is yet to make his debut for the Highlanders as he continues to prepare his shoulder for the rigours of Super Rugby, but prop Daniel Lienert-Brown, who has been sidelined in recent weeks through a broken arm, is expected to return to action later this month.

Likewise, young wing Sam Gilbert is expected to take to the field at grassroots level this weekend, 10 months after he ruptured his ACL while playing against the Blues in Auckland.

The Highlanders are scheduled to take on the Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday, with a team announcement expected on Thursday.

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