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'It's massive for us': Ex-England wing Denny Solomona set for Highlanders debut

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Former England wing Denny Solomona has been signed by the Highlanders and could make his Super Rugby Pacific debut as early as this week.

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The Highlanders confirmed the acquisition of Solomona to RugbyPass on Tuesday following various reports speculating the arrival of the five-test international as an injury replacement player at the Dunedin-based franchise.

Highlanders assistant coach Riki Flutey said on Tuesday that Solomona could be in line to play as early as this Friday against the Crusaders in Christchurch after having impressed in recent weeks.

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“Denny’s come into our environment over the last few weeks, obviously with lots of moving parts with injuries and Covid covers, so he’s come in there, and from day one he’s been in, he’s been outstanding,” Flutey said.

“Outstanding in terms of his leadership around his parts of the game, particularly around defence and also that back three area, so his voice has been really valuable over the last few weeks, and he’s a real opportunity for selection this week.”

News of Solomona’s signing comes just weeks after it was announced that the New Zealand-born 28-year-old had signed with North Harbour for the upcoming NPC season.

Solomona’s arrival at the Highlanders is a much-need boost of star power for the southerners, who sit at the bottom of the Super Rugby Pacific table with five straight losses to open their 2022 campaign.

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That record is the worst start the Highlanders have had to a season since their dire 2013 season, where they lost their first eight matches and finished second-last after winning only three of their 16 games.

With a challenging clash against the Crusaders in Christchurch scheduled for this weekend, the presence of Solomona would be highly-valued for the Highlanders, who have struggled for continuity in their outside back selections this season.

Already without star wing Jona Nareki for most, if not all, of this season, head coach Tony Brown is also without Josh Timu, who looked to have nailed down a starting role as left wing before succumbing to a knee injury against the Crusaders in round two.

Timu’s injury forced the addition of Liam Coombes-Fabling as an injury replacement player, but he only managed two appearances before suffering an injury that has left him sidelined for the foreseeable future.

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That, as well as a Covid outbreak within the squad, led to the call-up of Freedom Vahaakolo, who made his first Highlanders appearance of the year against the Blues on Saturday after having spent most of the season with the Crusaders.

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Elsewhere, Fijian duo Mosese Dawai and Vereniki Tikoisolomone, another injury replacement player, have seen irregular or no game time after Brown billed them as project players who need further development on the training ground earlier this year.

The additional unavailabilities of Solomon Alaimalo and Connor Garden-Bachop, the late start to the campaign by All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi and Ngatungane Punivai’s subpar form has left Sam Gilbert as the only consistent selection in the back three.

Gilbert, the top try-scorer for the Highlanders this year, is the only outside back to have started every match for the franchise this season, and the imminent selection of Solomona will only add to the merry-go-round of players out wide.

However, the class and pedigree of the former Sale Sharks speedster, who scored 46 tries in 88 outings for the Premiership club, is exactly what the Highlanders are after in a bid to turn their season around as quickly as possible.

“When we saw the opportunity, we grabbed at it because guys like him coming back, wanting to give back to New Zealand rugby union, it’s massive for us,” Flutey said.

A former Samoan rugby league international, Solomona went on record earlier this year to express his desire to play for Samoa at next year’s World Cup, a prospect that is now feasible following World Rugby’s change in eligibility laws late last year.

After having last played for England against the Springboks in 2018, Solomona has satisfied the three-year stand down period required to switch international allegiance.

Now part of the Highlanders set-up, Solomona is one step closer to fulfilling his test rugby switch and is firmly in the running to tick off his dream of playing Super Rugby in the coming weeks.

“I’ve reached a point in my career where there’s something missing,” Solomona told the New Zealand Herald in January. “There’s an itch on my back I haven’t scratched before and that is coming back home.

“The competition is fierce. Everyone who knows rugby knows Super Rugby. It would be awesome to go back and touch base with where I came from and play against the boys I grew up with.

“I’ve achieved a lot in England but it’s time to come home and see where I’m at.”

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