The Highlanders have named a settled team to face off against the Crusaders on Sunday, making just one change to their starting side.
Head coach Aaron Mauger has brought electric young wing Jona Nareki onto the left wing in place of fellow youngster Scott Gregory, who drops out of the match day squad entirely.
There are an additional three changes in the reserves, with veteran loosehead prop Daniel Lienert-Brown coming into the No. 17 jersey in place of rookie Southland front rower Ethan de Groot.
Mauger has opted to go for a six/two split on the bench, naming utility back Ngane Punivai at No. 22 in place of Bryn Gatland, while versatile loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas vacates the No. 23 spot last donned by Nareki.
There remains no room for star recruit Nehe Milner-Skudder, whose wait for a franchise debut goes on as he continues to work his way back into contact training from a troublesome shoulder injury.
The returns of Lienert-Brown (tooth surgery) and Punivai (concussion) from injury, though, are timely for the Highlanders, who have admitted throughout the week that they didn’t front up in last Sunday’s 32-21 defeat to the Blues.
That result leaves them out of contention for the Super Rugby Aotearoa title, but they could yet play a significant role in deciding the eventual champion of the New Zealand competition.
A victory for the Highlanders over the Crusaders would keep the Blues and Hurricanes – provided they beat the Chiefs on Saturday – in the hunt for the league crown.
That would pave the way for a blockbuster final round of action next weekend when the Highlanders face the Hurricanes on the Saturday before the Blues host the Crusaders in a top-of-the-table encounter.
Mauger isn’t looking that far ahead, though, and is only focused on rectifying the performance that his side produced against the Blues.
“I didn’t feel we did ourselves justice last week as we allowed the Blues to dominate us early and rack up some points,” he said in a statement.
“We were better in the back half, but it was too late. Playing the Crusaders, we know we will have to be tuned in from the very start but it’s another great opportunity for our guys to prove themselves against the competition leaders.”
Highlanders team to play Crusaders:
1. Ayden Johnstone
2. Ash Dixon (cc)
3. Jeff Thwaites
4. Pari Pari Parkinson
5. Jack Whetton
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Dillon Hunt
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (cc)
10. Josh Ioane
11. Jona Nareki
12. Patelesio Tomkinson
13. Michael Collins
14. Josh McKay
15. Mitch Hunt
16. Liam Coltman
17. Daniel Lienert-Brown
18. Siate Tokolahi
19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
20. Jesse Parete
21. Folau Fakatava
22. Ngatungane Punivai
23. Teariki Ben-Nicholas
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