Josh Ioane appears set to finally start a match for the Highlanders wearing the 10 jersey, having spent the last five weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa out injured.
The one-cap All Blacks first five was shuffled around the Highlanders backline in the early stages of Super Rugby, playing in the midfield and at fullback, while a groin injury has prevented him from playing any part in the revamped Aotearoa season. Assistant coach Mark Hammett has confirmed he is fit and ready for selection for the side’s trip to Hamilton this weekend, however.
The Highlanders’ other one-cap NZ rep, Dillon Hunt, has also recovered from an eye injury suffered during Sunday’s loss to the Hurricanes – which means the team sitting fourth on the ladder can likely field an almost first-choice starting XV for the first time in months, despite the continued absence of Nehe Milner-Skudder.
“Dillon is back training today and will be available,” Hammett said on Wednesday.
”Josh Ioane, full training today, also available. He was back for a training two weeks ago but re-aggravated [his groin injury], so this was the first [training session] back.”
Despite Ioane’s journey across the Highlanders backline prior to the COVID-enforced suspension of Super Rugby, Hammett has reiterated that the coaches are now looking at the playmaker primarily as a 10.
“We know that he can play second-five, and he’s played fullback pretty competently as well, but ultimately he’s a number 10,” Hammet said.
That’s not to downplay Mitchell Hunt’s performances, however.
“He’s been really good,” Hammett said of the man who moved south from the Crusaders ahead of the 2020 season. “He’s a warrior really, brave, and always up for the challenge. You don’t see him get flustered very often.
“He’s a really good leader within our group. There’s only good things to say about Mitch.
Hunt will likely move to fullback, where he was due to start in round one of Super Rugby Aotearoa before Ioane was invalided due to his groin injury.
It’s not all good news for the Highlanders, unfortunately, with reserve scrumhalf Kayne Hammington and utility back Ngatungane Punivai unavailable this weekend.
Hammington fractured his hand in the dying minutes of last weekends’ 17-11 loss and will miss the remainder of the competition, opening the door for the up-and-coming Folau Fakatava to take a spot on the bench. Punivai missed last weekend’s match through concussion and has not yet recovered enough to be available for selection this week.
The Highlanders were surprise winners in the opening clash of Super Rugby Aotearoa with Bryn Gatland slotting a drop goal in the final seconds of the match to consign the Chiefs to a 28-27 defeat. Their re-match kicks off at 3:35 this Sunday from Waikato Stadium.
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