No 9 Smith remains No 1 target for Highlanders

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 21/05/2014

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The Highlanders hope to lock an off-contract Aaron Smith in until at least 2017.

The All Black halfback will be priority number one for the Highlanders, who faced the same situation with Ben Smith last year before he committed to the New Zealand Rugby Union, Highlanders and Otago for four years.

As was the case with his namesake, Aaron Smith's initial negotiations are continuing with the New Zealand Rugby Union, Highlanders general manager Roger Clark said.

"I'm pretty confident that Aaron won't go anywhere else, but you can't take anything for granted and you have to go through that process. He's acknowledged that the Highlanders is the franchise he wants to continue with."

The Highlanders had pushed for a two-year deal when they signed breakout centre Malakai Fekitoa, a gamble which has paid off with the Blues reject playing his way into the All Blacks wider training group.

Fekitoa would remain on the same Super Rugby contract unless the Highlanders looked to extend his term early.

"The perception at the moment is probably that we've got a pretty good deal, but we gave him an opportunity as well," Clark said.

Veteran second rower Brad Thorn is out for the season with a bicep injury but has said he wants to play one more season of professional rugby.

His situation remained "up in the air", Clark said.

The bulk of the Highlanders squad would come from this year's group of overachievers, with room remaining for those who impressed during the national provincial championships.

"They are the nucleus of a good young squad and they will only get better. You are going to have a bit of attrition, and some young guys come through ITM Cup who are going to put their hands up."

One of those who will get an early chance to impress will be Stags utility player Scott Eade, who will join the Highlanders for a couple of weeks during the June test window as a halfback to help cover the absences of Aaron Smith and Japanese test player Fumiaki Tanaka.

Eade will play for the Highlanders against the Barbarians in Invercargill on June 20.

Meanwhile, ticket sales are on track for a big crowd under the roof in Dunedin for Saturday's game against the Crusaders.

Traditionally the big draw on the Highlanders calendar, more than 15,000 tickets had been sold yesterday, approaching the 18,500 the fixture has averaged.

The 5.35pm start was popular because it allowed fans from outside Dunedin to bring their families and still get back to Invercargill, Oamaru or Central Otago at a reasonable hour, and it was something the Highlanders always asked for, Clark said.

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- The Southland Times

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