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Interim Highlanders boss Clarke Dermody sets date on Josh Ioane's injury return

By Alex McLeod

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The Highlanders could welcome back star playmaker Josh Ioane from an ankle injury as early as next week when the Dunedin franchise take on the Western Force in Perth.

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Speaking shortly after his side’s comprehensive 40-19 dismantling of the Queensland Reds in the opening match of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman in Dunedin on Friday, interim Highlanders head coach Clarke Dermody revealed Ioane is in line for a return within the coming fortnight.

“He’s back running now. I think he’s got another session tomorrow, but all indications are he’s nearly there, so we’re hoping to be able to use him, if not next week, then definitely the week after,” Dermody, who is filling in for Tony Brown while he is on international duty with Japan, said.

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Ioane hasn’t featured for the Highlanders since he sprained his ankle on the eve of his team’s heavy defeat to the Hurricanes in their final Super Rugby Aotearoa match two weeks ago.

Prior to that, the one-test All Black had been in top form for the Highlanders, playing starring roles in their matches against the Chiefs and Blues in the lead-up to his injury.

The 25-year-old’s shift to fullback allowed him to flourish with extra time and space available to him as gelled well with first-five Mitch Hunt in a dual playmaking partnership.

Hunt has also played well this season, and that continued at Forsyth Barr Stadium as he worked with halves partner and co-captain Aaron Smith to bombard the Reds with a series of well-executed tactical kicks.

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Time and time again, Hunt and Smith forced the Super Rugby AU champions onto the back foot by kicking the ball in behind their defensive line and into open space.

Hunt admitted after the match it was a deliberate ploy designed to run the big Queensland forwards off their feet, something of which the Highlanders capitalised on through their quick, off-the-cuff attack.

“It’s tough to get the ball in behind and continually try and turn yourself around, especially in their group where they’ve got a lot of big boys,” the 25-year-old said.

“It’s going to be hard for them to keep going back, exit well, keep going back, exit well, and that takes its toll on a team, so that was a big part [of our game plan].”

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Hunt also revealed the Highlanders placed a big emphasis on the defensive side of their game and spoke highly of his fellow backs, who he said stood up and dominated on the opposite side of the ball against the Reds.

“Obviously our defence as well was huge tonight. We were pretty poor [during Super Rugby Aotearoa] and a big focus was our backs tonight.

“Some great shots tonight by Sio [Tomkinson], Scotty Gregory, our wingers getting up into those channels and really making a nuisance of ourselves and that paid dividends for us.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Smith, who said the victory was the perfect way to start Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

“It was a chance at redemption and a fresh start,” the 97-test All Blacks said.

“We had a great review last week around the Aotearoa comp, where we got things right and where we got things wrong, and we really tried to build a consistent week from our positive weeks of the Aotearoa comp and I think we got that tonight.

“We were full of energy, we were at home, and we had a great plan. The Reds still had their moments, but I felt like we controlled the game, really wanted to control the territory battle and run them around.

“We knew they might have had a big week celebrating [their Super Rugby AU title] and we didn’t want to show them any mercy and give them a chance. We just really wanted to make them work, make them earn everything they got.

“If you let them go set piece to set piece, they’re very dangerous, but I was really proud of their efforts tonight. A couple of guys got a shot and took their opportunities.”

Now sitting at the top of the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman table, the Highlanders will travel to Perth on Tuesday via Auckland and Sydney before they take on the Western Force at HBF Park next Friday.

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Interim Highlanders boss Clarke Dermody sets date on Josh Ioane's injury return

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