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Tony Brown hails all-international front row ahead of showdown with All Blacks props

By Tom Vinicombe
Jermaine Ainsley. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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The Blues may be without Karl Tu’inukuafe and Patrick Tuipulotu, but Highlanders coach Tony Brown has suggested that three All Blacks front-rowers should be enough to make the Blues scrum more than a formidable challenge for the Highlanders this weekend. Fortunately for Brown, the Highlanders have been cultivating a handy tight five of their own over the opening weeks of the Super Rugby Pacific season.

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While the Highlanders may be sitting on three losses from three matches played, their forwards have typically well and truly stood up to the might of the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes over the opening three rounds of the season. Tries have been hard to come by for the southerners, who have mustered just four to date – the worst-equal hit rate of any team in the competition. Up front, however, parity or better has been achieved against their Kiwi opposition.

“I don’t know if we’re in a better position or not [compared with last year] but definitely our boys are playing well,” said Brown after naming his side to take on the Blues on Friday.

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“We’re doing the simple things well in the set-pieces and our boys are getting around the park pretty well. Obviously having Jermaine Ainsley there has helped that.

“We’re pretty happy with where we’re at but the Blues are loaded with All Blacks so that’s going to be a different challenge altogether.”

 

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Three-test Wallabies prop Ainsley joined the Highlanders last year but was ruled out from taking part in the 2021 campaign through injury. The New Zealand-born tighthead – who is now eligible for the All Blacks due to last year’s changes to the World Rugby regulations – has been one of the Highlanders’ best performers this season, adding some additional starch to the set-piece while also showing up well in open play.

Unsurprisingly, Ainsley has been called upon to make his fourth start of the season against the Blues in a front row that remains unchanged from the opening week of the competition. Similarly, Brown’s only made one change to the reserve front-rowers this year, with Saula Ma’u coming onto the bench last week for the injured Josh Hohneck. Hohneck, however, is back on deck to take on the Blues.

“I think we’ve actually created a bit of starting front row and then an impact front row and they’re all doing an amazing job,” Brown said. “I think Rhys Marshall’s adding a lot when he’s coming off the bench at hooker and then obviously Daniel Lienert-Brown’s probably playing the best rugby he’s played for the Highlanders in a number of years.

“Just really happy how all six of our front-rowers are going, really.”

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With Ethan de Groot earning an All Blacks call-up last season, Liam Coltman managing a number of appearances for the NZ national side throughout his career and Ainsley representing the Wallabies back in 2018, the starting front row comprised of three internationals has been one of the key pillars of the Highlanders’ work this season, even if the team as a whole doesn’t have any victories to show for it just yet.

This weekend, they’ll front up against test props Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi (coming off the bench), which will prove another good litmus test for the Highlanders trio.

The Highlanders will take on the Blues at Eden Park on Friday evening at 7:05pm NZT.

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