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'Really impressive': Tony Brown backs Highlanders stars for All Blacks selection

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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After a year without some of his most promising prospects, Highlanders head coach Tony Brown is excited to have a host of returning stars back in action this weekend.

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While it is by no means his strongest possible lineup, Brown has welcomed back numerous players who have barely played for the Highlanders in recent times for the franchise’s Farmlands Cup pre-season clash with the Crusaders in Oamaru on Friday.

Chief among the list of names who have been bereft of game time but will feature in today’s fixture include halfback Folau Fakatava, midfielders Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea, and ex-Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley.

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All four players had limited or zero involvement in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaigns due to long-term injuries.

Both Paea, a two-test Tongan international, and Ainsley were heralded as significant signings leading into last year, but were ruled out for the entire Super Rugby season after sustaining high ankle sprains during pre-season.

Fakatava, meanwhile, only featured in a handful of matches before rupturing his ACL in the Highlanders’ famous away win over the Crusaders in April.

That robbed him of a likely call-up to the All Blacks, while Umaga-Jensen’s horror injury run extended into last year as he played just twice, bringing his appearance tally for the Highlanders to just 10 matches in four seasons.

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Without those four players, and an array of other injured and unavailable players throughout the course of last year, the Highlanders were never able to field a truly full-strength side in 2021.

However, while there are still a plethora of absentees from Friday’s match against their South Island rivals, the Highlanders will undoubtedly welcome the quartet back into action after they were all named to start at Weston Park.

All four players possess plenty of talent and potential, which could catapult them into the selection frame for the All Blacks should they stay injury-free and play their way into form.

Even Paea and Ainsley – neither of whom have played internationally since 2017 and 2018, respectively – could prove to be test-worthy candidates for New Zealand following World Rugby’s overhauled eligibility rules.

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Speaking to media on Friday, Brown said the concept of Ainsley swapping the green and gold of Australia for the black of New Zealand shouldn’t be eliminated as he spoke of his excitement about the 26-year-old’s return.

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“He unfortunately had a season-ending injury in the last training before we played the Crusaders in last year’s Farmlands Cup, so he’s lasted one more day,” Brown said of Ainsley.

“Hopefully he can go out and play well for the Highlanders and have a big campaign for us.

“He was a big loss for us last year, so hopefully he can get himself in the right sort of condition and be injury-free and, now with the new rules, he can press for All Blacks selection.

“To be honest, I haven’t seen him play, but I know that he’s played for the Wallabies, obviously, and he’s still a young tighthead prop, still learning his trade, so it’d be silly to not say that, at some stage, will be in contention.”

Brown spoke similarly highly about the comebacks of Fakatava and Umaga-Jensen, with the latter set to finally combine with Paea to create a powerful midfield partnership that never came to fruition last year.

“They’ve all got individual x-factor that can win [games],” Brown said of all three players.

“Folau’s been really impressive in training. It’s really exciting to see him back to, hopefully, the form he showed in 2021, and Thomas Umaga-Jensen has had a horrible run of injuries over the last sort of three years.

“He’s probably one guy in our team, if he has a good campaign, he’ll put his hand up for All Blacks selection.”

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The presence of Fakatava, Umaga-Jensen, Ainsley and Paea will help offset the absence of All Blacks trio Aaron Smith, Shannon Frizell and Ethan de Groot as they remain on extended leave following last year’s international campaign.

They will be available for round one of Super Rugby Pacific, though, but the Highlanders may be forced to wait longer for some of their other squad members who have been deemed unavailable for their pre-season bout with the Crusaders.

Connor Garden-Bachop, last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa Rookie of the Year, is out until at least round two of the competition due injury, while outside back Solomon Alaimalo is out indefinitely due to personal reasons.

Loosehead prop Ayden Johnstone is also battling glandular fever, but the Highlanders forward pack will be bolstered by the return of loose forward Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and former All Blacks lock Bryn Evans next week.

Kick-off for Friday’s clash between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Oamaru is scheduled for 4pm.

Highlanders team to play the Crusaders

1. Daniel Lienert-Brown
2. Liam Coltman
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
5. Josh Dickson
6. Gareth Evans
7. James Lentjes (C)
8. Hugh Renton
9. Folau Fakatava
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Scott Gregory
12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen
13. Fetuli Paea
14. Mosese Dawai
15. Sam Gilbert

Reserves: Luca Inch, Rhys Marshall, Flynn Thomas, Josh Hohneck, Saula Mau, Sam Caird, Fabian Holland, Sam Fischli, Sean Withy, Christian Lio-Willie, Kayne Hammington, Nathan Hastie, Marty Banks, Cam Millar, Vereniki Tikoisolomone,  Ngatungane Punivai, Josh Timu, Rory van Vugt.

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