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'We are looking for him to dominate that 15 position': Tony Brown's high hopes for returning fullback

By Ben Smith
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Highlanders head coach Tony Brown is excited to see fullback Connor Garden-Bachop return to his starting side after a long layoff with injury.

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He is looking forward to the ‘X-factor’ that Garden-Bachop brings to the side and is expecting him to create a lot of things at the back against the Crusaders.

“He’s been training with us for awhile now, the medical staff have been holding him off until his wrist and finger have recovered,” Brown said of Garden-Bachop.

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“Finally we get to select him this weekend and he’s pretty excited to get out there.

“I wouldn’t pick him if I didn’t have confidence in him.”

Garden-Bachop was part of the side that shocked the Crusaders last April, defeating them at home 33-12 in an unexpected result. The Highlanders built a solid 16-7 lead at half time before extending it to 26-7 early in the second half.

A late Richie Mo’unga try with twelve minutes to go threatened to be the start of a Crusaders comeback, but it was Garden-Bachop who put that to bed by scooping a loose pass inside the Crusaders’ 22 and sliding over for a try to seal the deal.

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“I think with Conor, he’s got a little bit of extra gas, a bit of X-factor there, he’s hugely confident in his own ability so we are looking for him to dominate that 15 position, bring a bit of X-factor to the game like he did last year against the Crusaders, create a lot of things from the back.

To accomodate the return of Garden-Bachop into the starting team, last week’s fullback Sam Gilbert has moved to the wing in a reshuffle but Brown says that the move to fullback was intended to be temporary.

“Sammy Gilbert played his first couple of games for the Highlanders on the wing, he did a really good job there,” he said.

“We moved him back to fullback in the pre-season, that first game through not having Connor available. He did a good job there but I’m looking forward to seeing him back on the wing, just being physical and really good defensively.

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The other backline change sees barnstorming midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen get a start at 12 after an impressive cameo off the bench against the Chiefs.

The Highlanders possess a sizeable midfield with the pair compared to their Crusaders opposites, with Braydon Ennor and David Havili set for a bruising encounter as traffic is sent their way.

“He had a good pre-season, did a great job off the bench. We feel as though he’s ready for a starting opportunity and we are looking forward to seeing the combination between Tug [Umaga-Jensen] and Fetuli [Paea], trying to get physical with the Crusaders midfield,” Brown said.

“We are hoping that [power] will be a point of difference for him [Umaga-Jensen] and something that will stand out in the competition going forward.”

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