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The Highlanders debutants primed to shine against Hurricanes

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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As the Highlanders continue their search for a first-up win in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific, head coach Tony Brown is hoping two of his newest players can help steer his side to victory this weekend.

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In announcing his side to face the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday, Brown named two players who will begin their Super Rugby Pacific careers at Sky Stadium, one of whom has only been at the franchise for a matter of weeks.

Waikato wing Liam Coombes-Fabling has been called on by Brown to fill the void on the left wing after incumbent flyer Josh Timu suffered a knee injury that forced his early withdrawal from last week’s defeat to the Crusaders in Dunedin.

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Brown confirmed that Timu, who started in his side’s first two matches to start the year, had sustained a partial tear of his posterior cruciate ligament, which will keep the 24-year-old sidelined for six weeks.

As such, Coombes-Fabling has been plucked out of the Super Rugby Pacific wilderness to make his first appearance at this level after having impressed for the Mooloos in their title-winning NPC campaign last year.

Despite his efforts at provincial level, the 23-year-old missed out on a full-time Super Rugby Pacific contract for this season, and had featured for the Chiefs during pre-season.

However, with a slew of unavailable outside backs at the Highlanders, Brown called Coombes-Fabling into his squad three weeks ago, and has now entrusted him to make his maiden Super Rugby Pacific appearance.

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It’s a rapid rise for the talented youngster, but Brown is confident in his abilities as a hard-working player that can provide his backline with a bit of spark.

“Just his ability to work,” Brown told media when asked of his reasoning for promoting Coombes-Fabling to a starting role ahead of more established squad members such as Scott Gregory, Vilimoni Koroi and Ngatungane Punivai.

“He’s got a huge work rate and also has a little bit of x-factor there.”

As he has previously alluded to, Brown reaffirmed that rookies Mosese Dawai and Vereniki Tikoisolomone are still continuing their development in training and didn’t come into selection contention, although they will do “in the next two or three weeks”.

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“We’re still working on our two Fijian boys, getting them up to speed around their ability to maintain that workload right across the 80 minutes. Until we get them up to what’s required, I think we’ll go with Liam, but they’re not far away.”

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The decision to start Coombes-Fabling has resulted in Gregory earning a place on the bench, despite being touted earlier in the week as the frontrunner to replace Timu on the left wing due to his experience.

That hasn’t been the case, though, as Brown said Gregory’s versatility as a utility back makes him a favourable bench option, thus resulting in his inclusion in the reserves.

By naming Gregory on the bench, Brown has reverted back to five-three split of forwards and backs in his reserves after choosing to go with six forwards and two backs against the Crusaders last week.

Brown has regularly used the six-two split in years gone by, but that selection tactic was exposed last week when Timu left the field after just 19 minutes.

With no outside back cover on the bench, the Highlanders were forced to play veteran first-five Marty Banks at fullback for the remainder of the match, but Brown said that scenario didn’t factor into his decision-making when picking this week’s team.

“We felt as though we had more impact with our loose forwards and traditionally we’ve always been a 6-2 team,” Brown said.

“I thought Marty did a fantastic job coming off the bench, filling in at fullback there, so we didn’t really lose a lot. It was just frustrating to get that early injury, no matter who it is.”

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Joining Gregory on the bench this week is Saula Ma’u, the team’s other new cap who has also been named to make his Super Rugby Pacific debut.

Standing at 1.93m and 140kg, the 21-year-old tighthead prop is a formidable prospect who has long been earmarked by the Highlanders as a player for the future.

Injuries in recent years have severely limited Ma’u’s progression through professional rugby, with his only first-class experience coming in two Ranfurly Shield pre-season challenges and two NPC matches with Otago in 2019.

Nevertheless, the Highlanders have kept Ma’u onboard for the past three years as a member of the franchise’s high performance programme, and now he finally gets his chance to realise his potential in Super Rugby Pacific.

“He’s obviously a big man, a big solar panel. We’re looking for him to just get stuck [in], get his Super Rugby career started, really,” Brown said of Ma’u.

“He can have a huge impact on the game in the weekend when he comes on with his physicality, but more it’s really just getting first cap under way and seeing what we can do from there with him.”

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