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Highlanders set to unleash secret weapon with 'massive future' on Brumbies

By Tom Vinicombe
Christian Lio-Willie. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Injuries have hampered the Highlanders’ season to date but they’ve also allowed coach Tony Brown plenty of opportunities to expose less experienced players to the rigours of Super Rugby.

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Along with their already extensive list of unavailable players, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Denny Solomona were added last weekend with the former pulling up injured in the warm-up to the Highlanders’ clash with the Hurricanes and the latter going down just 20 minutes into the match. Lock Josh Dickson, meanwhile, was shown a red card early in the game for a dangerous tackle and also won’t feature for a number of weeks.

While Brown has shuffled around the Highlanders’ backline for this weekend’s match-up with the Brumbies, bringing in the likes of Freedom Vahaakolo and Mitch Hunt, it’s the replacements in the forward pack that should be garnering the most interest.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.

Dickson’s suspension – coupled with prior injuries to Pari Pari Parkinson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit – means 25-year-old Sam Caird will earn his debut Super Rugby appearance for a New Zealand side after already featuring 10 times for the Waratahs last season.

Caird was a squad member with the Blues in 2020 but never had the chance to take the field while Covid protocols this year also scuppered any hopes of an early-season debut for the Highlanders.

“He did it tough,” captain James Lentjes said of Caird’s introduction to the Highlanders this year. “He had probably one of the roughest runs through Covid – close contact isolation and he got it and then he had all sorts of other stuff going in. I think he’ll just be pumped that he’s got his opportunity now and he can out there and show us what he’s got.”

While both Lentjes and assistant coach Rikki Flutey said Dickson’s loss was a big one, they both have full confidence in the man replacing him.

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“Sam Caird’s a good player in his own right and he gets his opportunity,” said Dickson. “I’m sure he’ll be pumped to get out there. He’s a big boy and he’s played over in Aussie, he’s played Aussie teams. If anything, he knows exactly what’s coming.”

“Josh Dickson, his growth in terms of leadership – particularly around our lineout – has been huge this year,” said Flutey. “[But] Sam Caird, he’s been siting in on all the meetings. He’s a clever boy so he understands the lineout and loves the lineouts just as much as Josh does so I’m sure he will do a great job leading that.

“He’s had a really good week so far in terms of his prep and understanding his roles, responsibilities going out to take on the Brumbies. He’s been really patient, obviously, over the past few months really. He’s another one that we’re really excited to see him get out on the field.”

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The other new face in the line-up is Otago loose forward Christian Lio-Willie, who will the don jersey No 23.

With Mikaele-Tu’u and All Black Shannon Frizell both unavailable, the Highlanders were looking for someone who could bring some strong go-forward off the bench, and Lio-Willie is the man who’s been chosen to add that impetus.

“Obviously we’ve lost a power runner so we’ve got Christian in there to fill those shoes and that’s one of his points of difference,” Flutey said. “You think back to last year, particularly in the Otago team, when he did get his opportunities he was one of our main ball carriers there. He’s been showing that over the last few weeks and also pre-season when he came in to show us what he’s got. He’s super excited, obviously.”

Lentjes, who captained Otago last season, shared similar sentiments.

“I’m pumped for Chris,” he said. “I’ve seen him play, I’ve played with him at Otago. He broke his hand in Queenstown before getting to play which was a shame because he was going really well. But he just has an awesome point of difference with his ball carry and when he gets his chance, he’s one for the future. He’s got a massive future, I think.”

Lio-Willie and Caird will have their work cut out for them against a Brumbies pack well known for its set-piece prowess but despite the Highlanders’ struggles to date, they still enter the match as favourites.

Sunday’s skirmish between the Highlanders and Brumbies is set to kick off at 2:00pm AEST (4:00pm NZT) on Sunday afternoon.

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