The Highlanders have been dealt a massive blow in the lead-up to their must-win match against the Waratahs in Invercargill on Friday, as talismanic co-captain and fullback Ben Smith has been ruled out of the contest due to his ongoing hamstring injury.
Smith strained his hamstring last month during his side’s 31-all draw with the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, and was expected to be sidelined for up to six weeks, ruling him out of the remainder of the Super Rugby regular season.
However, promising progress in his recovery gave the Highlanders coaching staff hope that the departing All Black would return in time for this week’s clash at Rugby Park, but he remains absent from the match day squad announced on Wednesday as his team prepares for their season-defining contest.
The 21-year-old bagged a brace of tries en route to his side’s 24-all draw with the South African visitors, with his top-end speed on display in both of his scoring efforts.
Should the Highlanders fail to come away from Invercargill with a bonus point win and other results go against them, thus resulting in them missing out on a quarter-finals berth, then Smith will have appeared in his last match for the club of which he has played 152 times for since his Super Rugby debut in 2009.
It would be a sad way to go out for the Highlanders’ most-capped player of all-time, who co-captained them to their maiden Super Rugby title in 2015.
“Ben worked extremely hard to be available for his team this week, unfortunately he is still a little short of being match ready,” Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger said.
Aside from the absence of Smith, the Highlanders have named an almost full-strength side for this week’s fixture.
Just one change has been made to the starting XV, with second-five Tei Walden taking the place of the exciting Sio Tomkinson.
One further change has been made on the bench, as outgoing loose forward Elliot Dixon is given the chance to farewell his home crowd in Southland as he replaces midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen, giving the Highlanders a six forwards, two backs split in the reserves.
Highlanders team to play Waratahs: 1. Ayden Johnstone, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 4. Jackson Hemopo, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Liam Squire, 7. James Lentjes, 8. Luke Whitelock (c), 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Tevita Li, 12. Tei Walden, 13. Rob Thompson, 14. Waisake Naholo, 15. Josh McKay.
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