Japan’s World Cup star Kazuki Himeno is in line to make his long-awaited Highlanders debut this weekend after being given the all-clear for selection.
While the team for this weekend’s clash against the Hurricanes won’t be named until Wednesday, Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody confirmed Himeno will be available for selection after a sideline spell following his arrival in New Zealand.
The 26-year-old loose forward, who was a standout for the Brave Blossoms in their historic run to the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals, hasn’t played competitive rugby since last year’s Top League in Japan, where he played for Toyota Verblitz.
With that – and his limited ability to train while undergoing the mandatory two-week quarantine period upon his arrival in New Zealand last month – in mind, the Highlanders waited until a week-and-a-half ago to inject Himeno into action.
That, however, came in the form of a starting role with the franchise’s reserve side, the Bravehearts, against the Crusaders Knights in Pleasant Point on March 13.
After getting through that match without any concern, and having observed a bye week with the rest of the squad, Himeno has been deemed fit to play this Friday.
The 17-test international isn’t the only player set for a return to action at Forsyth Barr Stadium, as highly-promising lock Pari Pari Parkinson, who re-signed with the Highlanders on Tuesday, and prop Ayden Johnstone will also be considered for selection.
Neither Parkinson (ankle) nor Johnstone (concussion) have played competitively since before last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, but both joined Himeno in the starting lineup for the Bravehearts 10 days ago.
Dermody confirmed Parkinson, who played for about half an hour, and Johnstone, who last for 60 minutes, emerged from that match unscathed after about and will therefore be in contention for this week’s match day side.
“Ayden and Pari both played in the Bravehearts game a couple of weeks ago, the weekend of the Blues [match], so they’re ready to go. They’ve passed what they’ve needed to,” Dermody told media on Monday.
“Kazuki, he played in that game as well. He’s got the quarantine out of his legs, so he’s available as well.”
The return of Parkinson and Johnstone, both of whom have been earmarked as potential future All Blacks, is significant for a Highlanders side that is still licking its wounds after being bludgeoned by the Blues in their last match before last week’s bye.
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Standing at 2.04m and 130kg, Parkinson is one of the biggest players in New Zealand and can provide the Highlanders with plenty of height at the lineout and plenty of power in the collision zone.
Dermody, though, was cautious about dropping the Maori All Blacks second rower in the deep end after eight months out of action with an injury that required a full reconstruction of his ankle.
“It just adds a different element to our forward pack. He’s a big human, so we’ll just be taking it easy with him because of how long he’s had off,” Dermody said.
“It was a full reconstruction, so it was a pretty big surgery and he’s done really well to get back to where he is now.”
Johnstone, the 24-year-old loosehead out of Waikato, is renowned for his scrummaging ability and will further enhance the power up front sought after by the Highlanders.
However, Dermody said Johnstone’s influence off the park has been just as important as his set piece work on the field.
“He’s also grown into a leadership role in the team as well, so not only is his on-field set piece stuff and his rugby game, he’s grown into a bit of a voice around the team as well, so it’s great to have him back involved.”
The injury news isn’t as fortuitous for two of the Highlanders’ key players, though, as loose forward Liam Squire and wing Jona Nareki are both in doubt for the clash against the Hurricanes.
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Squire missed the 39-17 defeat to the Blues as the Highlanders looked to manage his workload after a prolonged stint out of the game through hip and knee injuries, and Dermody said it was for that reason the ex-All Black is doubtful for Friday’s match.
“Liam’s still getting managed back from his load stuff around his past injuries,” Dermody said.
“Just the nature of it, it’s week-to-week, so we’ll see how he comes up at the start of each week… He’s a guy that we would love to have involved every week, but it’s just unfortunate it’s not the case.”
Nareki, meanwhile, was stung with a hip pointer injury against the Blues and is continuing to work his way back from that niggle.
“He’s still a bit sore. I’ve never had one, but they tell me it’s pretty sore. There’s not much muscle going on where he got hit, so he’s getting through the week, so we’ll say that,” Dermody said.
Dermody pointed out that if the electric 23-year-old speedster miss out on this week’s match, the Highlanders are well-equipped to deal with his absence through their strong depth throughout the backline.
“There’s heaps of guys back available. Thomas [Umaga-Jensen], Scott Gregory, Freedom’s [Vahaakolo] there as well, so there’s plenty of depth. It’s one of those things where if someone gets an opportunity and takes it, then it’s better for us.”
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