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Tony Brown sweating on fitness of Highlanders trio after Crusaders loss

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

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Highlanders head coach Tony Brown is hopeful three of his key players will be available for selection over the coming weeks after they left the field injured against the Crusaders on Friday.

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Brown said he was proud of the effort his side produced in their 34-19 Super Rugby Pacific defeat at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, but their admirable performance didn’t come without casualties.

All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot hobbled off shortly before half-time after receiving medical attention throughout a first half in which left wing Josh Timu also departed after only 19 minutes with a knee injury.

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The Dunedin-based franchise’s woes were compounded when vice-captain James Lentjes was left sprawled out on the deck after clashing heads with an opposition player in the closing stages of the fixture.

Speaking to media after the match, Brown indicated that Timu may be set for a lengthy sideline spell, but was optimistic about the recovery of De Groot and Lentjes.

“It’s a little bit unclear at the moment, but I think Josh has done a knee, Ethan’s got a bit of a [bruised] rib, which hopefully is not too bad, and James has got a bad neck that he’s had for a while,” Brown said.

“We’re hoping that with an extra day of recovery, we might get a couple of those guys back.”

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The loss of Timu may force the Highlanders to accelerate the development of Fijian wings Mosese Dawai and Vereniki Tikoisolomone, two players who Brown said earlier this week were “three or four weeks” away from being ready to play.

The Highlanders are also without Jona Nareki for much of this season because of a ruptured ACL sustained last August, while Solomon Alaimalo remains unavailable indefinitely due to personal reasons.

However, the southerners are still well-covered in their outside backs, with Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden-Bachop, Vilimoni Koroi, Scott Gregory, Ngatungane Punivai and injury replacement player Liam Coombes-Fabling all fit and available for selection.

Gilbert and Garden-Bachop both featured in Friday’s loss to their South Island rivals, but Brown suggested his side shouldn’t be dismayed by being beaten by their formidable neighbours after dominating for long passages of play.

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“I thought it was a quality game until probably the 60-minute mark, for us, where a little bit of fatigue and not quite nailing those key moments,” he said.

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“I think the Crusaders got on top of us there, but I’m pretty proud of the boys, and I think any Highlanders supporter would be pretty proud of the performance they delivered tonight.”

After blitzing out to a 13-0 lead inside the opening quarter of an hour, the Highlanders found themselves in an arm-wrestle with the Crusaders as the lead changed five times before Will Jordan landed the decisive blow with little more than 10 minutes left.

Brown effectively attributed individual brilliance of Jordan, the 2021 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, as the difference between the two teams, something that he said the Highlanders shouldn’t be ashamed of.

“The collisions were fantastic, our defence was unreal right through until a couple of x-factor players cut us to pieces at the end. Those guys have been doing it to the best rugby teams in the world, so I can’t fault the attitude and effort of my team.”

In saying that, though, Brown made it clear that if the Highlanders are to regularly compete with teams as strong as the Crusaders, then they need to maintain the pressure they had their opponents under for the entirety of the match.

“Against probably the best team in the competition, I think we had them under enough pressure to be proud, so our learning is to do it for a little bit longer, and when we do get that opportunity to win the game, we’ve got to be able to nail it,” he said.

“That’s why the Crusaders are six-time champions. They can do it for 80 minutes, and that’s our challenge.”

With there being no crowd in attendance, as per New Zealand’s current Covid settings, Brown cheekily added that the result may have been different had the match been played in front of a full house, as is usually the case for South Island derbies in Dunedin.

“I’m in the box, so it’s just normal for me, but I’m sure, for the players, it feels weird. It would have been great to have a full stadium here to cheer the boys on. Who knows, we might have got home,” he said with a smirk.

With two losses from two matches to open their 2022 campaign, the Highlanders will now look ahead to their round three clash against the Hurricanes, scheduled to be played at Forsyth Barr Stadium next Saturday.

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