Highlanders bolstered by trio to face Crusaders
The Highlanders have been bolstered by the return of key players from injury and suspension ahead of tomorrow's southern Super Rugby derby against the Crusaders in Dunedin.
Explosive wing Patrick Osborne is fit again after injuring an ankle in South Africa, while Lima Sopoaga has also recovered from an ankle problem after missing the wins over the Lions and Hurricanes.
Chris King also missed the gutsy win over the Hurricanes in the capital while he sat out a one-week suspension for an illegal hit in the Lions game.
Kurt Baker has now served his six-week ban for a lifting tackle.
While life without Sopoaga might have been considered with a touch of dread a fortnight ago, Parker has made an excellent job of running the shop in his absence.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has been impressed with some of his young players, who have had to step up to cover vacancies.
"All the players that have had an opportunity have really stepped up and it's taken the team forward to create another level of confidence, particularly for those guys, but also for the older guys who have seen them operating under pressure in a tough comp."
The return of Osborne gives the Highlanders some more firepower on the outside, to go with the understated talents of Richard Buckman on the other wing.
"He was in good form before he got injured. He was setting up tries and breaking tackles, and he was just coming into some really good form and got injured again. He'll be rearing to go."
Joseph doesn't believe the Crusaders' poor performance in losing to an undermanned Sharks team last weekend will be a factor in Dunedin.
"I think they are too good a team to rely on the motivation of a loss to play well. You are talking about seasoned All Blacks, led by McCaw up front. Obviously, they will have talked about it and deep down they will be a little bit annoyed from that loss, but they are a better team than that," he said.
"They are such a good side; they've got strength throughout their team and can play three or four different ways. It's a really hard team to prepare for defensively. I think the key for us is just to keep on what we are doing and focus on our own preparation and performance."
Joseph has no complaints about losing four players - Malakai Fekitoa, Liam Coltman and Ben and Aaron Smith - to the All Blacks wider training camp in the lead to tomorrow's game.
Coltman will miss tomorrow's game with a calf injury but is expected to be fit for next week's game against the Reds in Brisbane.
"They've been identified as potential All Blacks. That's always a positive and they don't tend to do much early in the week because they generally play most of the games for us and they need a rest. Getting into a different environment, listening to different players, different coaches, can be as good as a holiday. I think it's been a positive for our All Blacks because they come back with a bounce in the step looking forward to the game."
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris King, Ged Robinson, Kane Hames. Reserves: Sam Anderson-Heather, Matias Diaz, Ma'afu Fia, Tom Franklin, Gareth Evans, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Phil Burleigh.
CRUSADERS: Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl, Tom Taylor, Ryan Crotty (c), Nemani Nadolo, Colin Slade, Andy Ellis, Luke Whitelock, Richie McCaw, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Ben Funnell, Tim Perry. Reserves: Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Jimmy Tupou, George Whitelock, Willi Heinz, Adam Whitelock, Nafi Tuitavake
The Southland Times