With their 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign set for kick-off this Friday, the Highlanders are faced with a significant selection dilemma most squads would love to have.

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Head coach Tony Brown will, in all likelihood, already know the players he will unleash against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday, but many fans and pundits across the country remain in the dark as to who will start in franchise’s back row.

The southerners boast one of the strongest loose forward contingents in the competition, with six of their eight back rowers all genuine candidates to start throughout this season.

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In fact, if any of them were at any other franchise – bar the Blues – they would all be certainties to start, but at the Highlanders, they will all have to jostle with one another for starting places for the entirety of the campaign.

Retaining star players Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u from last season, Brown has bolstered his squad with the additions of Japanese World Cup hero Kazuki Himeno and 23-test All Blacks enforcer Liam Squire.

Those four players will compete for just two places in the Highlanders’ starting lineup at blindside flanker and No. 8, while a further two players – ex-captain James Lentjes and new recruit Billy Harmon – will do battle for the openside flanker role.

Which combination of players is the best for the Highlanders is anyone’s guess considering the breadth of talent all six of those players give the Dunedin side, as well as the depth provided by teammates Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Sione Misiloi.

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The only certainty is that Himeno won’t make his debut for his new team this weekend after only leaving his two-week quarantine facility on Monday.

Squire and Lentjes, meanwhile, are both bouncing back from respective injuries, with minor niggles sidelining the former throughout the Highlanders’ pre-season clashes.

The latter, however, impressed in his first match back since suffering a horror ankle and leg injury against the Melbourne Rebels almost a year ago, scoring a brace of tries from off the bench against the Hurricanes in Alexandra last Friday.

Given their recent injury statuses, though, it may be that neither play a starting role this week, but, with so many options and variables at hand, who knows what Brown’s preferred combination will be.

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That hasn’t stopped recently-retired Blues hooker James Parsons from predicting how the Highlanders will shape up in the back row in Dunedin on Friday.

Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, the former Blues centurion, who retired from all rugby last month, said Mikaele-Tu’u and Frizell stand as frontrunners to keep their No. 6 and No. 8 jerseys, adding that Harmon might have the inside running at No. 7.

“If you watched the game the other day [against the Hurricanes], I think Mikaele-Tu’u has to start,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“The way he played, the way he carried, I think he’s in the No. 8 jersey and I think Frizell’s at No. 6.

“Lentjes coming back from a pretty tough injury, he scored a couple of tries [last weekend], but I think Harmon has gone down there and he’s probably got the inside running at the moment, just because of that injury that Jimmy Lentjes is coming back from.

“But, he’s a tough customer and really well liked in that environment, so I think that’s going to be a hard-fought battle for the No. 7 jersey, but Harmon might get the nod going against his old team this weekend.

Parsons reserved special praise for Mikaele-Tu’u, labelling the potential shown by 23-year-old throughout pre-season as “frightening”.

“Honestly, Marino the other day, his carries and his contacts and his collision work was exceptional,” Parsons said.

“He looks like he’s going another gear, which is quite frightening because what he delivered last year in Super Rugby, and then what he did for Hawke’s Bay, and now what he’s delivered in pre-season, he’s a serious beast.

“I know he was a [starting] rookie last year, but he’s just going under the radar, another loose forward just to chuck in the mix in that All Blacks selection. 

“He’s been spoken about, but if he can back it up again, he’s a hell of a worker in that Highlanders environment.”

Whether or not Parsons and Brown see eye-to-eye selection-wise will become clear when the Highlanders name their team to play this weekend on Wednesday morning.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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