Highlanders face longer wait without injured wing Waisake Naholo
The Highlanders tackle a potentially season-defining block of four Super Rugby matches without star wing Waisake Naholo after his recovery from a leg injury has taken longer than anticipated.
It was originally hoped the 2015 All Black could be available for Friday night's start to the ninth round with the Sharks in Dunedin - but the Fijian-born finisher is still at least a fortnight away from making a comeback.
Naholo, the competition's leading try-scorer last year, crossed against the Blues during the tournament-opener on February 26 but subsequently suffered his latest leg fracture late in the game at Eden Park.
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Highlanders assistant coach Tony Brown revealed Naholo has resumed running but is not yet up to speed and club rugby has not been factored into the 24-year-old's rehabilitation.
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"We haven't really made a plan for Waisake yet. We're getting him back running, he's doing that at the moment. Once he can take a bit of contact we'll make a plan for him," said Brown.
Although Naholo's power has been missed, understudies Matt Faddes, Ryan Tongia and Jack Wilson had provided adequate cover on the right wing.
"It's a positive for us that those guys are standing up, we haven't felt the loss of Waisake massively so far but it's going to be pretty exciting to get him back."
Encouragingly, the Highlanders, who reassembled after their bye week on Monday, should have co-captain Ben Smith restored to their back three after he missed the loss to the Reds in Brisbane due to a head knocked suffered against the Force.
The influential World Cup-winning fullback still has to complete concussion protocols though Brown was hopeful Smith would be fit to return to a side still smarting from a one-point loss to the lowly Reds.
While the players dispersed Brown admitted spending "a bit of time in the office" reviewing the performance against the Queenslanders, who held off a Highlanders resurgence after the defending champions trailed 25-6 early in the second half at Suncorp Stadium.
It did not long for Brown to realise the Highlanders were off the pace from the outset at a ground they hadn't celebrated at since 2005.
"Our attitude wasn't quite right for that game. Whether we were on attack or defence we weren't positioning fast enough, which led to a pretty poor performance."
Brown said Smith's absence was no excuse and his presence may not have altered the outcome, so significant improvements are required for the fourth-placed New Zealand franchise as they contemplate clashes with the Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs and Crusaders.
"We're up against some of the best sides in the competition in the next four weeks. It will probably decide where we end up on the table," he said.
Brown said the Sharks, who opened their New Zealand tour with a five-point loss to the Blues, presented a different challenge after facing four Australian franchises in successive weeks.
"The Sharks are a really physical team and very direct," he said, after a training session focused on stopping the South African's rolling maul.
Meanwhile, key loose forward Elliot Dixon is on the mend after a head gash against the Force saw him miss the trip to Brisbane.
Marty Banks injury-hampered campaign continues as he recovers from a rib injury suffered during a 12-minute season debut against the West Australians so Hayden Parker continues as Lima Sopoaga's back-up as playmaker.