The Highlanders have been hit with a significant injury blow just hours ahead of the Super Rugby Aotearoa opener against the Chiefs.

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All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane has been ruled out of the clash with a groin injury sustained during training, and has thus been withdrawn from Saturday’s blockbuster clash in Dunedin.

The one-test playmaker had initially been named in the No. 10 jersey to pair up with fellow New Zealand international Aaron Smith in the halves, but his late injury has since forced a re-shuffle in the backline.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa

Mitch Hunt – who started at first-five in all of the Highlanders’ Super Rugby matches earlier this year while Ioane played one spot outside him at No. 12 – will move back into the No. 10 role after originally being named to play at fullback.

That means All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi will make his Highlanders debut from fullback instead of off the bench, while Bryn Gatland has the chance to face off against his father and Chiefs head coach, Warren, from off the bench.

In a statement released on Saturday afternoon, the Highlanders said Ioane will be further assessed next week, during which time the Dunedin club will observe a bye.

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News of the pivot’s injury-enforced withdrawal will put a massive dent in the host’s quest to notch an unlikely win over the Chiefs, who many regard as genuine title-contenders for New Zealand’s revamped version of Super Rugby.

Under the guidance of Hunt at No. 10 and Ioane in the midfield, the Highlanders struggled on attack in the opening seven weeks of the original Super Rugby competition, winning just one of their six games.

This match was set to be the first time Ioane had donned the No. 10 jersey for the Highlanders this year after excelling in the role last season, to the point he was handed an All Blacks debut against Tonga leading into the World Cup.

However, Hunt has been reinstated in that position at the last minute, and will be tasked with trying to steer the home side to victory in front of what’s expected to be a sell-out crowd under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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