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'Looking forward to playing him': Highlanders relishing Josh Ioane reunion

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Alan Lee/Photosport)

As fate would have it, new Chiefs recruit Josh Ioane is primed to make his official debut for his new side against his former team at his old home this weekend.


It wasn’t originally supposed to be that way, but a rescheduled season draw and a centralised Queenstown bubble amid New Zealand’s Omicron outbreak leaves the Highlanders up against their ex-star playmaker in their season-opener on Saturday.

That is provided the Chiefs, who are blessed with various first-fives worthy of starting roles this season, opt to thrust Ioane into the No 10 jersey in four days’ time.

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Should they do so, the one-test pivot will be tasked with trying to get one over the Highlanders after he left the franchise with a year left on his contract with the aim of fulfilling his vast potential that made him an All Black in 2019.

Standing in Ioane’s way will be the man who usurped him as the first-choice first-five at the Highlanders – Mitch Hunt.

After having embarked on a move of his own two years ago, when he shifted from the Crusaders to the Highlanders in search of more game time, Hunt fully understands the reasoning behind Ioane’s transfer to the Chiefs.

“It was an opportunity for him to potentially head away and be a better version of himself, and he felt like that place was the Chiefs, so I wish him all the best,” Hunt told reporters on Tuesday.


Thus far, it appears as though Ioane has taken his opportunities at the Chiefs with aplomb as he has performed strongly in his two pre-season outings against Moana Pasifika and the Blues.

Back to his ball-running and playmaking best, Ioane poses a significant threat if given the licence to roam freely on the dry track that his former home ground, Forsyth Barr Stadium, has to offer.

As such, Hunt is wary of the damage the 26-year-old could cause, especially with the added motivation of playing against his ex-teammates.

“He looked really well at the backend of NPC as well, and the games we’ve seen of him the last few weeks, so it’ll be good to get out there and battle with him. I know he’ll be probably pretty pumped to play the Highlanders as well for his first game.”


Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody echoed Hunt’s sentiments, although he was sure to make note that Ioane, as much as he has impressed for his new side, is still only one player in a threatening Chiefs outfit.


“I fully understand why Josh wanted to leave,” Dermoday said.

“He felt like he needed a change in scene. He’d been in Dunedin a long time, he hadn’t quite got to where he wanted to go, and, even though he had time to run on his contract, you can never hold a player if he doesn’t want to be around.

“He looks like he’s changed. He’s gone up there and he looks really fit. It was good to see him get a run on the weekend for them, and we’re looking forward to playing him.

“Obviously the boys know him really well, he knows our structures really well, but, like you say, it doesn’t come down to one man.”

Aiding the Highlanders in their quest to deny Ioane a victorious return to Dunedin is the fitness status of fullback Sam Gilbert and flanker James Lentjes.

Both players emerged from last week’s game of three halves against the Chiefs and Blues as injury concerns, but they have returned to full training this week.

Whether or not they will feature in the season-opener remains to be seen, although those within the Highlanders camp were debriefed on who will face the Chiefs this weekend on Monday.

Regardless, Dermody said the return of Lentjes, in particular, is crucial for the Highlanders given his experience, leadership and talent.

That could prove to be vital in a forward pack that failed to fire at the set-piece at Wakatipu Rugby Club last weekend, and Dermody outlined that area as an aspect that his team needs to improve come Saturday.

“Obviously a hugely important part of the game. Not super stoked with the weekend. We had a few opportunities in that first game against the Chiefs that we didn’t execute, so definitely a focus this week on tidying that up,” he said.

“As you say, it’s very important to make the most of opportunities when you get those inside [the opposition] 22, especially.”

Elsewhere, loose forward Christian Lio-Willie has returned to Dunedin after breaking his wrist in training, and he will soon be followed by wing Rory van Vugt, who suffered the same injury against the Chiefs three days ago.

Lio-Willie has since been replaced in the squad by young Otago lock Fabian Holland, the Dutch-born second rower who is set to link up with the squad after completing his five-day self-isolation period on Tuesday evening.


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