Injuries' ripple effect on Highlanders' backline
All Blacks utility Ben Smith's troublesome toe is being nursed carefully ahead of the Super Rugby season.
Smith will sit out the Highlanders' final pre-season game, against the Blues in Queenstown tonight, but should be available for the opener, against the Chiefs in Dunedin next Friday.
It's not the only short-term injury headache for coach Jamie Joseph - Brad Thorn is resting a calf injury and Lima Sopoaga has a groin issue - but it does have a ripple effect across the Highlanders' backline.
With Tamati Ellison to miss most of the campaign after offseason shoulder surgery, Smith loomed as the logical replacement in the midfield.
It's understood he is also being groomed as Cory Jane's wing replacement in the All Blacks, but meanwhile the Highlanders have had to develop options at centre and fullback to cater for the loss of Ellison, and the potential loss of Smith if his toe plays up any more.
Buxton Popoalii has been tried at the back over the past two games and he'll get a final chance to audition against the Blues tonight.
Trent Renata is another custodial option, while rookie Tony Ensor is still recovering from concussion after being knocked out at training.
Phil Burleigh looks to have sealed the centre position outside Ma'a Nonu in Smith's absence, with the Highlanders loath to move their new star signing out of the No 12 jersey.
The Highlanders' lineout unit is under pressure tonight to improve on their effort against the Crusaders in Oamaru last week after Joseph labelled it "poor".
"If we can provide the right sort of ball to our backline, you can see they will score tries. It's probably not an ideal last pre-season game for us just because of the amount of injuries we've got."
Meanwhile, Southland centurion and former All Black halfback Jimmy Cowan will see a surgeon in London this week after damaging the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in a knee during his Gloucester side's 27-11 win over Northampton at the weekend.
The injury is expected to take more than six months to heal, meaning the end of his debut season in the English premiership.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Highlanders: Buxton Popoalii, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear (capt), Hayden Parker, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Ma'afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Jason Emery, Fumiaki Tanaka, Shaun Treeby, Trent Renata, Frae Wilson, Hugh Blake, Tim Boys, Liam Coltman, Tom Franklin, Paul Grant, Chris King, Jamie Mackintosh, Bronson Murray.
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (capt), Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tom McCartney.
Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Liaki Moli, Ronald Raaymakers, Sean Polwart, Kane Barrett, Joe Edwards, Bryn Hall, Jackson Willison, Baden Kerr, Marty McKenzie, Pita Ahki.
Kick off: 5.30pm, Queenstown Recreation Ground.
The Southland Times