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Highlanders to welcome back Shannon Frizell for quarter-final against Blues

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Highlanders’ slim hopes of clinching a major upset against the Blues in Saturday’s Super Rugby Pacific quarter-final have received a boost.

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For the first time since April, the Highlanders will welcome back All Blacks star Shannon Frizell into their match day team after he emerged from Dunedin club rugby unscathed last weekend.

Frizell managed 40 minutes for Taieri in what was his first game back since he injured his knee in the opening stages of the Highlanders’ win over Moana Pasifika at Forsyth Barr Stadium eight weeks ago.

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In the 17-test loose forward’s absence, the Highlanders managed to pick up a further three wins against Australian opposition, but head into this week’s match on the back of two straight losses.

Those demoralising defeats at the hands of the Waratahs and Rebels make the Highlanders massive underdogs to beat a Blues team that have qualified for the playoffs as top seeds on the back of a 13-match unbeaten run.

Their odds of walking away from Eden Park with the victory have increased, albeit slightly, through the return of Frizell, who Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody said was the likeliest of a group of unavailable players to feature in Auckland.

Others, such as first-five Mitch Hunt and fullback Connor Garden-Bachop, are dealing with concussion symptoms, while Dermody is hopeful utility back Scott Gregory has recovered from a case of the flu.

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“The most likely out of that group is Shannon. He played his club footy last week. My understanding is he’s fully available,” Dermody said on Tuesday.

“Connor’s returned to play through his concussion protocols, so we’ll let that take its course. Same with Mitch. I think he’s a bit behind Connor, and Scott had the flu last week, so hopefully he’s back available.”

Frizell’s return to action is all the more timely given Highlanders co-captain James Lentjes injured his shoulder during the Rebels match in Melbourne.

Lentjes’ possible absence from this week’s match leaves Frizell to shoulder much of the responsibility for leading his side’s forward pack, a challenge that Dermody believes the 28-year-old can step up to.

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“Getting someone like Shannon back is always good for the team, so we’ll still to decide how we’ll use him,” Dermody said.

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“He’s a good pro, so he’s done his rehab well. The boys have looked after him pretty well.

“He’s trained hard, and he will have needed to because it’s going to be a different challenge playing for Taieri than playing for the Highlanders in a quarter-final against the Blues.”

However, the Highlanders won’t be solely reliant on Frizell in order to achieve the unlikeliest win of their underwhelming season, and Dermody is acutely aware of the task that confronts his side.

“We understand how good they are, they’re the top seed for a reason, and they’ve obviously earned everything they’ve got through how they’ve played,” he said.

“We understand them pretty well. We’ve obviously played them twice already this year and we’ve played them a few times over the last few seasons and done well-ish.

“Didn’t beat them this year, but we were in games for a long time, so we can take heart out of that, but we’re fully aware of how hard it’s going to be.”

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