A raft of key players were rested by head coach Aaron Mauger as he abided by the All Blacks’ resting policy during their loss at AAMI Park.
However, the absence of Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock and Liam Coltman last week means the All Blacks quartet have been welcomed back into the starting side for the first of six consecutive New Zealand derbies for the Highlanders.
The resting policy will still have ramifications for the Dunedin-based franchise this week, though, with in-form flanker Shannon Frizell forced out of the match day squad, while star wing Waisake Naholo has been demoted to the bench with only 37 minutes of game time left available.
Naholo has been replaced on the right wing by Highlanders cult hero Richard Buckman, who makes his first appearance for the club since returning from Japanese Top League side Kobelco Steelers.
Jackson Hemopo will fill in for Frizell on the side of the scrum as he shifts away from the second row.
While most of the talk about the Highlanders’ team for their clash at Westpac Stadium has been focused around the return of their key All Blacks, Mauger spoke highly of his youthful midfield, which consists of 21-year-old Thomas Umaga-Jensen and 22-year-old Sio Tomkinson.
Playing in just their fourth and 10th Super Rugby matches, respectively, this is the first time the pair have started alongside each other, with Mauger looking to combat the physical presence evident within the Hurricanes’ backline.
Umaga-Jensen is the biggest midfielder in the squad with dimensions of 1.87m and 107kg, while Tomkinson has a reputation for being one of the most explosive tacklers in New Zealand.
Together, the duo will be tasked with restricting the damage inflicted by an all-star Hurricanes backline, which features blockbusting second-five Ngani Laumape, who bagged a hat-trick against the Brumbies last week.
“We’ve gone for a physical midfield,” Mauger told RugbyPass on Wednesday.
“We know that the Hurricanes’ backs are very physical, they’re a big backline, so we want to make sure we match them there.
“Both Thomas and Sio deserve that opportunity, they’ve both played good footy.
“I thought Sio was outstanding off the bench last week, and through his physicality and his intent, put us in a position towards the end of the game to give ourselves a crack at winning it, so he gets rewarded for that performance.”
It was a strong hit that left the normally staunch second rower stunned, illustrating the immense power Tomkinson possesses defensively.
“He’s actually a pretty softly-spoken guy, and pretty gentle, but as soon as he crosses the chalk, he’s certainly got that ruthless mindset about him,” Mauger said of Tomkinson, who starred at local 1st XV level for Otago Boys’ High School, before progressing through the national age grade and Otago ranks to debut for the Highlanders in 2017.
“Not too dissimilar to Brian Lima, who’s also a Highlanders legend, so there’s a bit of Brian Lima in Sio’s mindset around the tackle.”
With his first start of the year, Tomkinson will look to capitalise on the absence of regular starter Rob Thompson, who is ruled out for at least another fortnight with an ankle injury sustained against the Reds last month.
Mauger said both he and Umaga-Jensen, as well as fellow youngster Josh Ioane, are all products of the development system implemented by the Highlanders in recent seasons.
“I think the way we tried to grow them last year and develop them, they all had game time last year, which was great, it was part of our plan, and now they’re in a position to compete for those spots.
“As you’ve seen with Josh Ioane, he’s grabbed it with both hands. He’s taken his opportunities, Thomas has done the same, and Sio gets an opportunity this week to really put his hand up and say ‘Look, I want this position for good’, so that’s great.
“We’ve got Rob Thompson sitting on the sideline injured at the moment, Tei Walden misses out this week.
“We’ve also got Richard Buckman, who will slip into the midfield at some stage. Matt Faddes is another guy, so we’re pretty loaded there, and they’ll all play.
“We’ve got that luxury, so we’ll use them all during the year.”
Hurricanes: 1. Chris Eves, 2. Dane Coles (c), 3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 4. James Blackwell, 5. Liam Mitchell, 6. Vaea Fifita, 7. Du’Plessis Kirifi, 8. Ardie Savea, 9. TJ Perenara, 10. Beauden Barrett, 11. Ben Lam, 12. Ngani Laumape, 13. Matt Proctor, 14. Jordie Barrett, 15. Chase Tiatia
Highlanders: 1. Ayden Johnstone, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 4. Josh Dickson, 5. Pari Pari Parkinson, 6. Jackson Hemopo, 7. James Lentjes, 8. Luke Whitelock (c), 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Tevita Li, 12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 13. Sio Tomkinson, 14. Richard Buckman, 15. Ben Smith (c)
Watch – Manu eyes World Cup dream:
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.