One-test All Blacks pivot Josh Ioane will be thrust into Super Rugby action from the midfield rather than first-five after being named to start at second-five for the Highlanders’ first match of the 2020 campaign.
The 24-year-old was a revelation for the franchise last year after being handed the majority of the playmaking duties from the No. 10 jersey, where he shone through his exciting running game and astute goal-kicking.
The promise shown in his breakout Super Rugby season led to an All Blacks debut last September, but it appears Ioane has been usurped in the first-five role by new recruit Mitch Hunt ahead of the Highlanders’ season-opening clash against the Sharks in Dunedin on Friday.
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The former Crusaders back-up has been named to start in what will be his franchise debut for the Highlanders, and will form a dual playmaking axis with Ioane, who will start just outside of him at No. 12.
Hunt is joined by starting wings Jona Nareki and Tima Fainga’anuku – both of whom shone in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup for Otago and Tasman, respectively – in making their maiden appearances for the Highlanders.
Ioane, meanwhile, is one of four All Blacks named in the starting team alongside long-serving hooker Liam Coltman, veteran halfback Aaron Smith and one-cap flanker Dillon Hunt.
The man who consigned the @Highlanders to one of the most painful losses in recent franchise history is now looking to cement himself as the club’s premier playmaker. #SuperRugby #Highlandershttps://t.co/e5nq4Eh5ta
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 4, 2020
Coltman and Smith will both be on restricted minutes as part of the All Blacks’ resting program for players returning from last year’s World Cup in Japan.
Traditionally an openside flanker, Hunt will don the No. 6 jersey to accomodate for new skipper James Lentjes, who will start at No. 7.
On the bench, there are a further three debutants-in-waiting in the form of ex-Chiefs forward Jesse Parete, former Blues fullback Michael Collins and rookie Wellington loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas.
Additionally, All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell has also been named in the reserves, and like his World Cup teammates Coltman and Smith, the 25-year-old is scheduled for limited game time.
Friday’s encounter against the Sharks marks the first time the Highlanders will play without a raft of departed stars who headed abroad following last season’s quarter-final finish.
Among those to have left Forsyth Barr Stadium include All Blacks Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, Jackson Hemopo, Elliot Dixon and Tyrel Lomax.
Other key players, such as Tom Franklin, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Marty Banks and Tevita Li, are also gone, but head coach Aaron Mauger remains confident in his side’s ability to emerge victorious in front of a home crowd.
“The squad has worked very hard during the preseason and the players are excited by the opportunity to play in front of our home supporters at our stadium,” Mauger said in a statement.
Kick-off for this weekend’s match is scheduled for 7.05pm local time.
Highlanders team to face the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin on Friday:
Unavailable due to injury: Jeff Thwaites (foot), Tevita Nabura (back), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (shoulder), Teihorangi Walden (ribs), Ngane Punivai (knee)
Season ending injuries: Connor Garden-Bachop (back), Ricky Jackson (ankle)
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