Vilimoni Koroi a chance to start at No 10 for Highlanders in must-win match
Following their 32-20 defeat to the Waratahs in Dunedin last weekend, the Highlanders may need at least one competition point, if not two, from their match against the Rebels as the Force continue to apply pressure on their playoffs spot.
The Force head into their clash against the Hurricanes in Perth on Saturday just three points behind the eighth-placed Highlanders after they scored a bonus-point win over Moana Pasifika in Auckland on Tuesday.
If the Force beat the Hurricanes at HBF Park, the onus will then go on the Highlanders to get the job done AAMI Park the following day, a task that has been made that much more difficult by their shortage of first-five options.
A week after thriving in his surprise new position of No 10, Highlanders youngster Sam Gilbert was sent off for dumping Waratahs star Michael Hooper on his head, resulting in a five-week suspension from the SANZAAR judicial committee.
Gilbert’s unavailability leaves Tony Brown’s side short-changed at first-five as incumbent playmaker Mitch Hunt is in doubt as he continues to work his way back from concussion protocols.
As such, veteran pivot Marty Banks stands as the frontrunner to don the No 10 jersey in his side’s do-or-die clash against the Rebels, but Koroi hasn’t been ruled out of selection contention.
Despite having featured just once this year in a bench cameo against the Blues in March, Highlanders assistant coach Riki Flutey said Koroi is very much in the running to start at first-five this weekend.
“Yeah, it definitely does,” Flutey said of whether Koroi has been touted as a possible first-five candidate for the Highlanders.
“Also, obviously, Marty Banks as well, so it [Gilbert’s and Hunt’s unavailabilities] creates opportunities for others.”
Flutey’s comments come after Brown labelled Koroi, typically an outside back who has occasionally played first-five for Otago in the NPC, as a long-term No 10 prospect earlier this year.
Of strong sevens pedigree, Koroi would offer the Highlanders more of an attacking threat at first receiver than Banks, although it may be seen as a risk to thrust the former into the chief playmaking role at such a critical juncture in his side’s season.
Koroi would, though, be aided in his sudden promotion to the starting team by the imminent returns of midfield duo Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea.
Umaga-Jensen and Paea missed the loss to the Waratahs through respective back and quad injuries, but Flutey said both players are in line for selection against the Rebels.
“Thomas has a stiff back, so that’s why he didn’t play and pulled out, so we’re just going to see how he comes through today, really,” Flutey said on Tuesday.
“Fetuli’s got a tight quad, so he’s another one that we’re going to be testing, to see if he’s going to be available for selection.”
Having Umaga-Jensen and Paea on deck would help provide Koroi, or Banks, with support, direction and power in the backline.
Another who missed the Waratahs match but is set to play the Rebels is former Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley, while in-form No 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u was demoted to the bench despite being named to start after battling the flu.
Flutey described Umaga-Jensen and Mikaele-Tu’u and “world-class players” who would give the Highlanders a much-needed boost if they were to return to action this weekend.
“They’re world-class players, those two. They’ve been playing awesome for us. They’ve been massive for, particularly, our attack side of things,” he said.
Flutey added that he supported Brown’s criticism of poor preparation in the wake of the defeat to the Waratahs, noting that the Highlanders must produce a better effort against the Rebels.
“It was a poor performance. You look on our attack side, we were loose, we were loose in the carry, trying to offload when we hadn’t dominated collisions and didn’t sight the target, all those little things on the [defence] side,” he said.
“We were giving away silly penalties that got them in the game, mainly around the offside.
“That’s a simple one. That’s an easy one we need to get right because, over the last few weeks, we’ve been getting pinged for it and letting teams off the hook with our momentum.
“On both sides of the ball, it’s something that we’ll talk about today, and we really put it down to the preparation, individuals’ preparation going into the game and what that looked like.
“We definitely need to be better, particularly going over to Melbourne with the travel. This week’s prep has to be massive. We need to get an outcome.”
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