Sorting pieces of Highlanders midfield puzzle

FIRST MAN UP: Phil Burleigh will partner Ma'a Nonu in the midfield for the Highlanders pre-season game against the Crusaders in Oamaru.
FIRST MAN UP: Phil Burleigh will partner Ma'a Nonu in the midfield for the Highlanders pre-season game against the Crusaders in Oamaru.

The question of who will fill Tamati Ellison's boots at the Highlanders this season will get another airing against the Crusaders in Oamaru this afternoon.

Ellison underwent shoulder surgery in December and will be out of the game for at least six months, with the Highlanders quietly hopeful he could make an appearance before the playoffs that the franchise is desperate to qualify for this year.

The Highlanders are overstocked with midfielders better known as second-fives than centres and are looking to manufacture a combination with All Black No 12 Ma'a Nonu during the preseason.

Shaun Treeby and Phil Burleigh combined in the 36-14 loss to the Chiefs in Taupo on Saturday and Burleigh will partner Nonu today.

Highlanders assistant coach Scott McLeod, who played 17 games in the midfield for the All Blacks in the mid-1990s, said the team would continue to investigate its options.

"It's a shame that we've lost Tams. I guess, from my point of view, I'm a bit of an optimist and I'm not looking at it so much as a problem. We've got Phil Burleigh, who has got a heap of skills very similar to Tamati's. We've got a young guy, Jason Emery, who is very interested in playing at this level and Ben Smith has been used as a centre in the All Blacks and Ma'a has been used as a centre as well."

McLeod said Nonu was obviously a world class inside centre and it was less likely that he would be moved out a spot.

"Our first priority will be getting Ma'a into this team and getting the team used to Ma'a as a 12. That's primarily how we want to use him. In saying that, we've got Shaun Treeby who has played outstanding for the Highlanders the last couple of years as a 12 so there are definite options there."

Talented as he is, McLeod may be overselling Treeby's impact a little there and there should also be some wariness in moving Ben Smith from fullback to the midfield.

Good enough to make the move, Smith is much better for the Highlanders at the back than in the front line.

Buxton Popoali'i will get a chance at fullback against the Crusaders, something which would excite and scare Highlanders fans in equal measures if it was done in a competition game.

"He's playing fullback tomorrow, so yep," McLeod said when asked if Popoali'i was a realistic proposition as a Super Rugby fullback.

All Blacks Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Aaron Smith will make their first appearances in a Highlanders jersey this season, with Jarrad Hoeata also coming into the team alongside Brad Thorn in the second row.

Southland's John Hardie returns to the field for the first time since re-injuring his foot during the Stags' preseason last year, while Brayden Mitchell also gets a chance in the front row between Woodcock and Ma'au Fia.

The Highlanders will be without hooker and skipper Andrew Hore for their opening game against the Chiefs due to suspension.

Meanwhile, McLeod, who is in his first season with the Highlanders after assistant roles with Waikato and a skills coaching job with the Chiefs, said he was settling into Dunedin well.

With three of his four young children starting primary school this week, it's been a busy week.

"You'd have to ask the guys I'm working with and the boys but I'm really enjoying it. They are very similar people to Waikato people - rural people, good hard workers. I'm really enjoying that. The family's settled in now and the kids are off to school."

Highlanders: Buxton Popoali'i, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear (capt), Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Brad Thorn, Ma'afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Jason Emery, Hayden Parker, Fumiaki Tanaka, Shaun Treeby, Frae Wilson, Hugh Blake, Liam Coltman, Tom Franklin, Paul Grant, Jamie Mackintosh, Bronson Murray.

Crusaders: Tom Marshall, Adam Whitelock, Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty (captain), Johnny McNicholl, Tom Taylor, Andy Ellis, Jordan Taufua, Shane Christie, Luke Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Luke Romano, Pa'ea Fa'anunu, Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Adrian Barone, Joe Moody, Jimmy Tupou, Jeremy Su'a, Willi Heinz, Robbie Fruean, Telusa Veainu, Joel Everson, Mitch Graham, Matt Todd, Tyler Bleyendaal, Keiran Fonotia, George Whitelock, James Schrader.

Highlanders midfield options: Ma'a Nonu, Phil Burleigh, Shaun Treeby, Jason Emery, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison (when available). 

The Southland Times