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Highlanders spring playmaking surprise as All Blacks star returns for Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images)

The Highlanders have sprung a playmaking surprise for the Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener against the Crusaders in Dunedin on Friday.

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Mitch Hunt has been named to start at No. 10 ahead of one-test All Blacks pivot Josh Ioane, who is on the bench, while young outside back Connor Garden-Bachop has been handed his first start at this level.

The 21-year-old has been named on the right wing, and will join fullback Solomon Alaimalo, openside flanker Billy Harmon and Irish lock Jack Regan as the debutants in the run-on side.

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What the Farmlands Cup means to Temuka | Crusaders vs Highlanders pre-season

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What the Farmlands Cup means to Temuka | Crusaders vs Highlanders pre-season

A further intriguing selection decision comes in the midfield, with Ngatungane Punivai selected at centre in place of the injured Fetuli Paea, who starred for the Highlanders in their pre-season matches against the Crusaders and Hurricanes.

He joins Patelesio Tomkinson in the midfield, while there are a further two debutants and four capped All Blacks, including Ioane, in the reserves.

Returning loose forward Liam Squire has shaken off a minor injury concern and is primed to make his first Highlanders appearance since 2019 from the bench, with Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u winning starting spots.

Squire joins Ioane, Liam Coltman and Bryn Evans as internationally-capped reserves, with the latter in line to make his Highlanders debut alongside Tasman flanker Hugh Renton.

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Elsewhere, reserve loosehead prop Josh Hohneck will also mark his long-awaited return to the Highlanders after four seasons playing in England.

Veteran halfback Aaron Smith and experienced hooker Ash Dixon will co-captain the side.

Highlanders team to face the Crusaders on Friday

1. Daniel Lienert-Brown
2. Ash Dixon (co-c)
3. Siate Tokolahi
4. Josh Dickson
5. Jack Regan
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Billy Harmon
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (co-c)
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Jona Nareki
12. Patelesio Tomkinson
13. Ngatungane Punivai
14. Connor Garden-Bachop
15. Solomon Alaimalo

Reserves:

16. Liam Coltman
17. Josh Hohneck
18. Jeff Thwaites
19. Bryn Evans
20. Liam Squire
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Josh Ioane
23. Hugh Renton

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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Jon 2 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Sopoaga is going to be more than good enough to look up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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f
finn 11 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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