Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has assured that the six players who were stood down from last week’s match against the Crusaders have been duly punished for their actions.
Josh Ioane, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Patelesio Tomkinson, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Sione Misiloi were all suspended from last week’s upset win over the Crusaders in Christchurch for excessive partying after the previous week’s defeat to the Hurricanes.
Their suspensions – particularly that of Ioane, the one-test All Black who isn’t new to alcohol-related incidents – dominated headlines leading into the South Island derby at Orangetheory Stadium.
However, after being challenged by Brown to earn their way back into the playing squad, Ioane and Tomkinson have both been named in the match day side to face the Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday.
Brown said the pair, and the other four players, were put through their paces in the lead-up to this week’s clash, which looms as a crucial fixture for both teams as they aim to clinch a place in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final.
“They got punished, mate. Don’t worry about that,” Brown told reporters on Thursday. “They just had to do a bit of extra fitness. Most of the guys who don’t make the 23 have got to work pretty hard to keep their fitness standards high, so they were the same.”
Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon was more blunt in his assessment of the punishment handed down to his teammates.
“It was a tough week for them, not gonna lie,” he said. “They got put through the wringer a bit. They let the team down and it was pretty obvious when the boys were watching them and they were still training, had to do a fair bit.
“They took their punishment on the chin and we reflected on that on Monday. We caught up with them and had a bit of a yarn with them and a lot of those boys are really remorseful and really hungry to get back in the team.
“Brownie’s given those boys another chance to add to our group and, in this competition, it can’t just be 23 guys. It has to be everybody contributing, so those guys get a crack this week.”
The additions of Ioane, who will come off the bench, and Tomkinson, who starts at centre, are two of six changes to the Highlanders’ starting lineup from the side that shocked the competition by toppling the Crusaders.
Some of those changes have come as a result of injuries, but Brown said it wasn’t a difficult decision to chop and change his playing personnel despite predictions from many that a similar team would be fielded to face the Chiefs.
“I think we need a lot more energy for the week to prepare for the Chiefs, because they’re playing some really good footy, so some new energy is good for our team to get our preparation right,” he said.
One key alteration comes at halfback, as co-captain Aaron Smith returns to the starting XV in place of the highly-promising and Folau Fakatava, who has been ruled out for between nine and 12 months due to a ruptured ACL.
Much had been made of Fakatava’s form as many projected him to be involved with the All Blacks later this year, and Brown didn’t hide his disappointment of losing one of the most important players in his squad.
“It’s a really disappointing finish to what’s been a pretty outstanding nine months for Folau,” he said.
“He’s come right into the All Blacks picture, was playing outstanding footy and to have your season cut short by that is pretty disappointing for him, but, after talking to him, I know that he’ll come back a better rugby player.”
Another change comes in the midfield, where Tomkinson will be partnered by Scott Gregory, who shifts to No 12 after impressing on the wing in his first outing of the year last week.
His inclusion in this week’s team is good reward for the 22-year-old, who endured a difficult start to Super Rugby in his maiden campaign at this level last year.
Brown said the physical attributes the Northland and All Blacks Sevens representative that he offers aligns well with the role of a midfielder, hence the positional switch.
“Playing well. We feel as though his skill set and his physical edge that he brings is suited to being in the midfield, so we’re going to give him a shot there and move Sio out to centre.”
Elsewhere, veteran prop Josh Hohneck has been named for his first start of the year in the No 3 jersey, as has flanker and ex-captain James Lentjes, while Ngatungane Punivai has shaken off a hamstring injury to fill the void left by Gregory on the right wing.
The victory over the Crusaders has lifted the Highlanders to third place on the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings where they trail the second-placed Blues, who currently occupy a grand final spot, by five points.
With eight points to their name and with a game in hand, the Chiefs lie in fourth place but could move to within one point of the Blues if they come away from Forsyth Barr Stadium with a bonus point win.
Kick-off for the match is scheduled for 7:05pm on Saturday NZT.
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