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'They can develop into a world-class midfield': Tony Brown's vision for Highlanders duo

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Highlanders head coach Tony Brown believes his side’s midfielders who started against the Crusaders over the weekend could blossom into a “world-class” pairing.

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For the first time, Brown partnered promising 24-year-old Thomas Umaga-Jensen with two-test Tongan international Fetuli Paea in a starting lineup as the Highlanders fell to a 34-19 defeat to the Crusaders in Dunedin on Friday.

Both players were viewed as the preferred midfield options last year after Paea arrived at the Highlanders on a two-year deal following one season at the Crusaders.

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Together, the duo offer plenty of power, pace, size and strength, which Brown got excited about when he unveiled his 2021 Highlanders squad.

At the time, Brown described Umaga-Jensen as “a bit of a beast” who was “weighing in at 113kg and running as quick as a winger”, while, in September 2020, he earmarked Paea as a player with “world-class” potential.

However, neither player took to the field alongside each other at all last year, with Paea’s campaign finishing before it even got going when a high ankle sprain sustained in pre-season prevented him from making his Highlanders debut.

Umaga-Jensen, meanwhile, continued to endure the injury woes that have plagued him since he was first signed by the Highlanders in 2018 as he only managed to feature twice last year, taking his career total for the franchise to 10 matches.

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In their absences, utility back Scott Gregory and the departed Michael Collins ended the season as the first-choice midfielders, but both Paea and Umaga-Jensen, the twin brother of one-test All Black Peter, appear to have turned a corner.

The former made his long-awaited Highlanders debut against the Chiefs a fortnight ago, while the latter looks to have kept his injury concerns at bay thus far this season.

As such, the pair made their much-anticipated starting debut alongside each other against the Crusaders over the weekend, with Umaga-Jensen promoted to the No 12 jersey after impressing off the bench against the Chiefs.

Following a quiet showing in his side’s season-opener the week beforehand, Paea was thoroughly involved throughout the course of the fixture as he constantly got in the face of his former teammates with quick defensive line speed.

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The 27-year-old also carried frequently, as did Umaga-Jensen, occasionally to powerful effect, and while they didn’t set the world alight in their first start together, Brown said he saw enough to show they could prosper into a dangerous midfield pairing.

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“I think both Tuli [Paea] and Tug [Umaga-Jensen] were outstanding in the midfield,” Brown told media after his side’s loss to the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

“Both of them haven’t played a lot of rugby and they haven’t played a lot together, so that’s a pretty exciting midfield combination for us. I’m hoping with more game time, they can develop into a world-class midfield.”

All indications, then, point towards Brown retaining Umaga-Jensen and Paea – who is now eligible for the All Blacks after having not played for Tonga since 2018 – for this weekend’s clash against the Hurricanes in Dunedin.

Their selection chances look likely after Brown implored his side to provide the same energy that saw them begin their match against the Crusaders with such a ferocity that earned them a 13-0 lead after only 15 minutes.

That much will be even more important given the Hurricanes are riding high after their last-gasp 33-32 win over the Blues on Saturday, a match that the Wellington-based side’s midfielders, Julian Savea and Bailyn Sullivan, shone in.

Eager to negate the threat posed by Savea Sullivan, Brown could do worse than to thrust Umaga-Jensen and Paea back into his starting midfield as their search for a first-up win this season continues.

“I was just proud of the intensity and physicality we brought to the challenge tonight,” the Highlanders boss said of the Crusaders match.

“I think if there’s any area of the game we need to improve on, it’s just to be able to do it again against the Hurricanes, because this competition doesn’t get any easier, it just gets harder, so we’ve got to get up and bring the same intensity and physicality next week.”

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