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Highlanders welcome test-capped duo back into starting side to face Moana Pasifika

By Alex McLeod
Photo: John Davidson / www.photosport.nz

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The Highlanders have made three key changes to their starting team to face Moana Pasifika at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.

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The southerners are eyeing their first win of the season after having opened their Super Rugby Pacific campaign with six straight defeats to start the year.

In order to beat Moana Pasifika in a bottom-of-the-table clash, the Highlanders have re-called All Blacks loosehead prop Ethan de Groot and former Wallabies tighthead prop Jermaine Ainsley into their starting lineup.

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Neither player started for the Highlanders in last week’s 17-14 South Island derby defeat at the hands of the Crusaders in Christchurch, with De Groot managing a cameo appearance off the bench.

The four-test international then left the field shortly before full-time after copping a high shot to the head from Crusaders hooker Shilo Klein, who was subsequently red carded and handed a three-week ban.

However, De Groot has recovered well enough to earn a start ahead of last week’s incumbent Daniel Lienert-Brown this weekend.

Ainsley, meanwhile, was absent from last week’s match, but the three-test Wallabies front rower has returned to the run-on team in place of Josh Hohneck.

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The only other alteration to the run-on team comes in the second row, where Manaaki Selby-Rickit’s impressive showing off the pine against the Crusaders has earned him a starting role ahead of ex-All Blacks lock Bryn Evans.

The promotion of De Groot and Selby-Rickit into the starting side has enabled head coach Tony Brown to name loosehead prop Ayden Johnstone and debutant lock Max Hicks as their replacements on the bench.

Johnstone and Hicks are two of three newbies on the bench for the Highlanders, with the other being All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi, who replaces veteran first-five Marty Banks.

Brown has resisted the temptation to start halfback Folau Fakatava despite his standout substitute performance late in last week’s defeat, while former England wing Denny Solomona awaits a starting debut after again being named on the bench.

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While desperate for a first-up win, Brown is aware of the threats Moana Pasifika pose and has refused to take the new expansion side lightly.

“They have had a great debut season so far in Super Rugby Pacific, they are a physical team that never gives up. We expect, as we do every week, that we will have to match up for the full 80 minutes to get the result we need,” Brown said.

“I have been encouraged by what our guys are leaving on the track over the last few weeks and with more accurate execution we can really start to get our game going.”

Kick-off for Friday’s match is scheduled for 7:05pm.

Highlanders team to play Moana Pasifika

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Andrew Makalio
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
5. Josh Dickson
6. Shannon Frizell
7. James Lentjes
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (c)
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Mosese Dawai
12. Scott Gregory
13. Fetuli Paea
14. Sam Gilbert
15. Connor Garden-Bachop

Reserves

16. Rhys Marshall
17. Ayden Johnstone
18. Saula Ma’u
19. Max Hicks
20. Gareth Evans
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Vilimoni Koroi
23. Denny Solomona

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