It’s not often a coach will celebrate the opposition announcing the return of an All Black, but Chiefs coach Warren Gatland has reason to welcome the inclusion of Josh Ioane in the Highlanders side for their clash on Sunday afternoon.
It will be Ioane’s first appearance of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, after he was a late withdrawal from the season-opener against the Chiefs with a groin injury.
That led to Bryn Gatland – Warren’s son – getting a late call-up to the 23, and he eventually proved to be a match-winner against his dad’s team, slotting a late drop goal to give the Highlanders a dramatic 28-27 victory.
Gatland retained his spot on the bench for the following matches, but with Ioane now back, the one-test All Black takes the 22 jersey, with Gatland dropping out of the side – not that his father was too heartbroken.
“Thank god for that,” Gatland joked.
“It’s the last thing I need. It was good for him personally, but for me – I can tell you I wasn’t the happiest person in the world.”
Gatland hasn’t had many reasons to be happy so far this season, with the Chiefs holding a 0-4 record. Sunday’s clash in Hamilton is their best chance to break that drought, though with his side already out of title contention, Gatland is also looking to the future, giving young first-five Kaleb Trask a start ahead of the soon-departing Aaron Cruden.
“We’ve got to think about where we’re going to finish in this competition – hopefully second or third. We’ve got to be realistic about that,” Gatland said.
“So you’ve got to start thinking a little bit about next year.”
The Chiefs are boosted by the return of Anton Lienert-Brown, who forms a new midfield combination with Alex Nankivell, while Solomon Alaimalo moves back into a starting spot on the wing.
The Highlanders will give Josh McKay his first start of the competition, with Jona Nareki dropping to the bench. Promising halfback Folau Fakatava joins the substitutes.
Daniel Lienert-Brown – amusingly listed on the Highlanders injury report as being out due to “teeth”, is unavailable due to dental surgery, with Ethan de Groot set to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench.
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