The Highlanders have been hit with another injury blow, losing midfielder Fetuli Paea for the season due to a high ankle sprain sustained in a pre-season match against the Hurricanes last week.
Head coach Tony Brown confirmed the news while speaking to media shortly after the Highlanders team to play the Crusaders this weekend was announced on Wednesday.
“He’s got a high ankle sprain and needs an operation, so unfortunately Fetuli’s out for the year, which is frustrating for him and, for us, it’s a huge blow,” Brown said.
“He was going great and he was fitting into both our attack and defence well, and in the environment, he was starting to be a real leader, so we’ll have to get him back in there next year.”
Paea was a standout for the Dunedin franchise across both of their pre-season games against the Crusaders and Hurricanes, but Brown will now have to make do without the two-test Tongan international, who was a new signing from the Crusaders.
The news of Paea’s loss comes just a week after the Highlanders confirmed three-test Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley, another new recruit from the Melbourne Rebels, is also out for the season after suffering the same injury during training.
Brown said no injury replacement has yet been decided, but he has called on another former Crusader in Ngatungane Punivai to cover for Paea’s absence in the No. 13 jersey.
The 22-year-old will pair up with Patelesio Tomkinson in the midfield against Crusaders duo Dallas McLeod and Jack Goodhue, but Brown said it was a tight call between Punivai and Michael Collins to fill Paea’s boots.
That positional battle was one of many Brown and his coaching group faced when selecting their side for Friday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener.
“I thought the outside backs were a tough selection, and then also at centre once Fetuli was out injured,” Brown said.
“I think both Michael and Ngane have done a good job there, so that was a tough selection, and then in the forwards, there’s the loose forwards with Jimmy [Lentjes] coming back from injury, at lock with [Manaaki] Selby-Rickit.
“We’ve got a lot more depth than we’ve had in the past, so it’s exciting for us as a coaching team to go through those selection dilemmas and making sure we nail that final 23.”
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One player who didn’t come into consideration was Japan’s World Cup star Kazuki Himeno, who left his managed isolation facility on Monday following two weeks in quarantine after arriving in New Zealand.
Brown and his assistants maintained throughout pre-season that the 26-year-old would be unavailable for the first match of the season due to a lack of match fitness.
However, Brown revealed Himeno will be available for the round three clash against the Blues in Auckland on March 14.
“He’s going to need a couple of weeks, two weeks to get himself physically conditioned for Super Rugby, and then we’ll look to see if he can enter our selection discussions.”
Once he returns to action, Himeno is set to go head-to-head with Shannon Frizell, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Liam Squire for places in the match day side at blindside flanker and No. 8.
Frizell and Mikaele-Tu’u have both been handed starting duties this week, with Squire set to kick-off his second stint with the Highlanders from the bench after recovering from an injury niggle throughout pre-season.
One of New Zealand’s most underrated rugby events has provided once again. https://t.co/HmJA0nQ6k6
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Brown has full confidence in Squire’s fitness, but made note of the fact Friday’s match will be the 29-year-old’s first in over 12 months.
“100 percent confident in Liam, but he’s only playing his first game in over a year, so we just want to get him started and I’m sure he’ll be a little bit nervous, but the boys love having him in the side and I’m sure he’s going to impact the game well.”
Elsewhere, the selection of Mitch Hunt at No. 10 ahead of Josh Ioane will have raised some eyebrows, but Brown said both players had performed well in recent weeks and that Ioane has the potential win the game as an impact player.
As for new fullback Solomon Alaimalo, Brown said the pure talent of the former Chiefs flyer was enough to secure him the No. 15 jersey, despite emphasising the importance of the playmaking role in that position late last year.
“I think he needs a lot more developing in that role, but his X-factor and his ability on the rugby field is why we’ve put him there, so we’re hoping for a lot of that on Friday night and then we’ll keep building his game around being able to be that second playmaker.”
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