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Highlanders youngster returns for final Super Rugby Aotearoa clash after 10-month injury spell

By Alex McLeod

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Highlanders wing Sam Gilbert will make his first appearance for the franchise since last June in his side’s final Super Rugby Aotearoa clash against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday.

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The 22-year-old ruptured his ACL in just his second outing for the Highlanders in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa clash against the Blues in Auckland and hasn’t featured at first-class level over the past 10 months.

After missing most of the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign and all of last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, Gilbert has been slowly reintroduced to rugby via the Dunedin club rugby scene in recent weeks.

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Having emerged unscathed while turning out for his Green Island club, Gilbert has been thrust back into the Highlanders’ starting lineup for their dead-rubber affair with the Hurricanes at Sky Stadium.

The former New Zealand U20 speedster’s selection at right wing in place of the injured Ngatungane Punivai (upper leg) represents just one of two changes from the starting side that defeated the Blues 35-29 in Dunedin a fortnight ago.

The only other alteration made by head coach Tony Brown come at loosehead prop, where rising Southland star Ethan de Groot reclaims his place in the No. 1 jersey ahead of Ayden Johnstone, who has been demoted to the bench.

Aside from the inclusion of loose forward Hugh Renton on the bench in place of Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, the Highlanders otherwise remain unchanged as they look to close out their domestic season with their fourth win from their eighth match.

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A win over the Hurricanes would also give the Highlanders a sweep of their New Zealand rivals, as the southerners have already defeated the Blues, Chiefs and Crusaders once each earlier this season.

Neither the Highlanders nor Hurricanes can qualify for next Saturday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final, although a victory for the Highlanders could see them leapfrog the Blues to finish in third spot, one place better than last year.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are rooted to last place and will finish with the wooden spoon regardless of Friday’s result in the capital.

Both sides will have next week off as the Crusaders and Chiefs contest for the Super Rugby Aotearoa title before the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition kicks-off the following week.

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

Highlanders team to face the Hurricanes on Friday

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Ash Dixon (co-c)
3. Siate Tokolahi
4. Bryn Evans
5. Josh Dickson
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Billy Harmon
8. Kazuki Himeno
9. Aaron Smith (co-c)
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Jona Nareki
12. Scott Gregory
13. Patelesio Tomkinson
14. Sam Gilbert
15. Josh Ioane

Reserves:

16. Liam Coltman
17. Ayden Johnstone
18. Josh Hohneck
19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
20. Hugh Renton
21. Kayne Hammington
22. Michael Collins
23. James Lentjes

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

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Highlanders youngster returns for final Super Rugby Aotearoa clash after 10-month injury spell

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