The Highlanders have sprung a playmaking surprise for the Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener against the Crusaders in Dunedin on Friday.
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.
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.
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
16. Liam Coltman
17. Josh Hohneck
18. Jeff Thwaites
19. Bryn Evans
20. Liam Squire
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Josh Ioane
23. Hugh Renton
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