Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has named a mix-and-match squad to take on the Crusaders in their first pre-season match of 2021.

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All in all, the Dunedin side features 10 players set to run out in Highlanders colours for the first time, including one youngster Brown admits he has never seen play before.

Wellington outside back Connor Garden-Bachop is one of two squad members, as well as No. 8 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, who will start in both halves of the Farmlands Cup encounter in Temuka.

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The Highlanders have named two separate run-on sides for each half, but Garden-Bachop will start at fullback both from the kick-off and after half-time.

His inclusion in both teams will allow Brown to get a good look the 21-year-old, with the Highlanders boss admitting he has never seen Garden-Bachop in action.

“Connor, I’ve actually never seen him play,” Brown said on Wednesday.

“So I’m excited to watch him go and he’s pretty excited to get out there because I know he’s had a tough year last year, and it’s going to be good to see what he can deliver first up.”

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Recruited by former Highlanders coach – and cousin – Aaron Mauger for the 2020 Super Rugby season, Garden-Bachop was robbed of a debut after a lower back injury in 2019 ruled him out of the entire campaign.

Now fit and firing, the youngster is finally set to take to the field alongside seven other newbies, including three-test Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley.

Garden-Bachop and Ainsley are two of six Highlanders debutants to start the second half alongside former All Blacks lock Bryn Evans, young Otago flanker Sean Withy, Hawke’s Bay playmaker Caleb Makene and exciting wing Freedom Vahaakolo.

The first half side will feature a further four new faces in the form of former Crusaders flanker Billy Harmon, Irish lock Jack Regan, ex-Hurricanes flanker Hugh Renton and two-test Tongan international Fetuli Paea.

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Eight-test All Blacks hooker Liam Coltman and first five Mitch Hunt will co-captain the first half team, while Otago skipper Michael Collins will take charge in the second half.

Star first five Josh Ioane, returning All Blacks loose forward Liam Squire and powerful No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u are all unavailable due to injury niggles, but Brown noted the trio will be free to play in the coming fortnight.

Towering lock Pari Pari Parkinson (ankle) and young wing Sam Gilbert (knee) are the only two long-term injury concerns, with both players unavailable for the Highlanders’ season-opener against the Crusaders in Dunedin on February 26.

However, injury-riddled wing Nehe Milner-Skudder and ex-Chiefs flyer Solomon Alaimalo, who missed the backend of last year due to a dislocated shoulder, are both set to play against the Hurricanes in Alexandra next week.

For Milner-Skudder, a pre-season debut against his former side in Central Otago would be an emotional affair given his awful run of injuries that kept him sidelined for 22 months between November 2018 and September 2020.

Former Highlanders captain James Lentjes, who was the victim of a gruesome leg and ankle injury while playing against the Rebels last February, is also expected to play 20 minutes off the bench on Friday.

Furthermore, Brown confirmed Japanese import Kazuki Himeno is currently in managed isolation after arriving in New Zealand earlier this week, but hinted the Brave Blossoms loose forward may have to wait until round three at the earliest for a debut.

“I think round one’s a big ask,” Brown said of Himeno, who is scheduled to be released from quarantine on February 22, four days before the season kicks-off.

“Obviously if you have two weeks in isolation with not a lot of training, you’re probably going to have to have two weeks of good training coming out of that.

“He’s fit, he’s been training in Japan, [but] two weeks doing nothing is quite a tough ask to come back and play straight away.”

While the Highlanders will be without Himeno for the first two weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa, there is hope the franchise’s two All Blacks, halfback Aaron Smith and loose forward Shannon Frizell, will be available from the get-go.

In years gone by, New Zealand Rugby have imposed restricted minutes and mandatory rest weeks for its top players in the first few weeks of the Super Rugby season, but Brown said there is no plan in place with the governing body this time round.

“There’s no real agreement with New Zealand Rugby. They want their players playing, we’ve just got to be smart around how we manage them,” he said.

“They’re leaving it up to us to manage the players and we’re in pretty close contact with the All Black coaches and they’ll let us know if we’re potentially draining one of their players and playing them too much.

“But, as you know, we don’t have too many All Blacks. We’ve just got the two, so not a biggie for us.”

Brown also welcomed the announcement of two new law innovations – goal line dropouts and captain’s referral – to be implemented in Super Rugby Aotearoa this season.

The changes come after golden point and 20-minute red card law variations were introduced to the competition last year.

“All the stats say there’s more ball-in-play time and potentially less five metre scrums, so it can only be good for the game,” Brown said of the goal line dropouts.

As for the captain’s referral variation, he said: “Ultimately it’s going to have some key decisions at the end of the game, making sure that they’re correct and teams that potentially are getting cost games in the last five or 10 minutes can then have a referral and challenge the referee’s call.”

Kick-off for the Highlanders’ clash against the Crusaders in Temuka is scheduled for 5:30pm on Friday.

Highlanders team to face Crusaders in Temuka

First half:

1. Daniel Lienert-Brown
2. Liam Coltman (c)
3. Siate Tokolahi
4. Josh Dickson
5. Jack Regan
6. Hugh Renton
7. Billy Harmon
8. Teariki Ben-Nicholas
9. Folau Fakatava
10. Mitch Hunt (c)
11. Jona Nareki
12. Patelesio Tomkinson
13. Fetuli Paea
14. Ngatungane Punivai
15. Connor Garden-Bachop

Second half:

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Ricky Jackson
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
5. Bryn Evans
6. Sione Misiloi
7. Sean Withy
8. Teariki Ben-Nicholas
9. Kayne Hammington
10. Caleb Makene
11. Scott Gregory
12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen
13. Michael Collins (c)
14. Freedom Vahaakolo
15. Connor Garden-Bachop

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