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Shannon Frizell set for injury return as Highlanders target quarter-final berth

By Alex McLeod
Shannon Frizell. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

All Blacks loose forward Shannon Frizell will make his injury return this weekend as the Highlanders target a Super Rugby Pacific quarter-final berth on Sunday.

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Frizell has been out of action for seven weeks after hurting his knee in the opening moments of his side’s win over Moana Pasifika last month, but will return to action in Dunedin club rugby this weekend.

The 17-test international will then become available for the Highlanders in what would be a major boost for the southerners, should they qualify for next week’s playoffs with a win over the Rebels in Melbourne on Sunday.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 15
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 15

If the Western Force beat the Hurricanes in Perth on Saturday, the Highlanders will need a result against the Rebels to lock in a quarter-final clash against the Blues in Auckland.

However, the Highlanders head into this week’s match at AAMI Park on the back of a dire performance against the Waratahs last week, falling short 32-20 in a dismal display at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

That result handed the Waratahs their first win in New Zealand in seven years, and their first in Dunedin since 2008, resulting Brown to call on his side to “be f****** better” in the match’s immediate aftermath.

The loss was the ninth suffered by the Highlanders in a season that Brown described on Thursday as “frustrating” due to the widespread unavailability of players through injuries and Covid.

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“I just think it’s been a frustrating year for everyone around Covid early and now lots of flu going around all the teams, and injuries as well,” Brown said.

“It’s been a frustrating year, really, around keeping the squad together and trying to create a competitive team every week.”

It’s for that reason that Frizell’s return would be significant for the Highlanders, although their sole focus is on securing a much-needed win against the Rebels in two days’ time.

Following his outburst in the wake of his side’s loss to the Waratahs, Brown said his players have taken that message onboard, which he said has been reflected in their approach to training this week.

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“It’s not really a serve, just a little bit of honesty. The boys have responded well this week, we’ve trained really well and a lot more intensity in our preparation. That’s what I’m after,” he said.

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“The boys are obviously disappointed in the performance, so we’ve had a good week’s preparation around the intensity required and the standards required.”

Brown’s sentiments were echoed by veteran first-five Marty Banks, who has been named to start at No 10 in the absence of suspended starlet Sam Gilbert and injured playmaker Mitch Hunt.

“We didn’t cop it at training too much. I guess the boys were probably aware we didn’t perform to the standard we wanted to. We’re well aware of that as a group,” Banks said.

“We had a pretty honest chat first day in, wasn’t up to our standards, so it was on us. We didn’t really need a spray from the coaches because we sort of knew we hadn’t performed, so that’s something we’ve sort of talked about earlier in the week.

“Physically, we’ve just got to meet the Rebels this week from the first minute, and then build into that from there.”

Banks is one of nine new additions to the starting lineup for the Rebels clash. Four-test All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot and in-form midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen are the other key inclusions after missing last week’s match through injury and illness.

Umaga-Jensen takes the place of Scott Gregory – who has contracted the flu – at second-five, while Andrew Makalio takes the place of Liam Coltman at hooker after the departing All Black sustained a calf strain against the Waratahs.

Elsewhere, injury replacement player Liam Coombes-Fabling earns a start at fullback as Connor Garden-Bachop recovers from a concussion, and All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi will act as first-five cover on the bench.

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