Highlanders hoping their show of faith pays off

ON THE BENCH: Despite regaining form with the All Blacks, Ma'a Nonu (right) will not join Brad Thorn in the Highlanders' starting lineup against the Crusaders.
ON THE BENCH: Despite regaining form with the All Blacks, Ma'a Nonu (right) will not join Brad Thorn in the Highlanders' starting lineup against the Crusaders.

The Highlanders are hoping a show of loyalty will pay dividends against the Crusaders tonight.

Having watched Aaron Smith and Ma'a Nonu play their way back into form with the All Blacks over the past three weeks, it must have been tempting to push them immediately back into service for a game the Highlanders would love to win in their final outing at Forsyth Barr Stadium this season.

Both players will come off the bench tonight; Japanese halfback Fumiaki Tanaka and bustling Shaun Treeby are preferred after they helped the Highlanders to a memorable win over the Blues in the final outing before the June test window.

"We've picked on form," Highlanders assistant coach Jon Preston said.

"The reason that Fumiaki and Shaun Treeby are in the team is that they were significant contributors in our last game.

"We've always been about trying to pick on form.

"The two All Blacks were outstanding when they were away with the All Blacks but in our environment the two players that started played extremely well and we didn't feel it would be fair to leave them out."

The Highlanders' lack of loose forwards was further exposed by John Hardie's knee injury with Elliot Dixon to make a rare appearance in the No 7 jersey.

The Highlanders have opted to make do with Dixon rather than try the untested Hugh Blake, who played a full game for the Highlanders against Southland last Friday.

"You can't go around changing too many things for the sake of one player. Elliot spent a lot of time learning the roles of that position," Preston said.

"It's a new challenge for him but we know that if the rest of the side does their jobs then it won't be as big a challenge."

Kade Poki (rib) and Lima Sopoaga (ankle) return to the mix after long absences.

Preston said Poki's inclusion ahead of Trent Renata was a tough call after Renata, a first five and fullback who covered the wing against the Blues, had played well.

"We've had a few issues with injuries, and everyone gets injuries, but we've had guys who have been out for a long period of time.

"They are two classic examples of that. Kade, in particular, was in outstanding form when he got injured and that was disappointing so it's great to see him in the mix.

"Lima has had a bad run in general with the Highlanders . . . it's nice to have him available, he's a talented player."

Highlanders vice-captain Hosea Gear will play his 100th game of Super Rugby.

Demand for tickets means the western stand, which is normally closed during university holidays, will open.

More than 17,000 tickets were sold yesterday with capacity increased to 22,600.


HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith, Kade Poki, Tamati Ellison, Shaun Treeby, Hosea Gear, Colin Slade, Fumiaki Tanaka, Mose Tuiali'i, Elliot Dixon, Jarrad Hoeata, Josh Bekhuis, Brad Thorn, Ma'afu Fia, Andrew Hore (captain), Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Bronson Murray, Jake Paringatai, TJ Ioane, Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Ma'a Nonu

CRUSADERS: Israel Dagg, Tom Marshall, Ryan Crotty, Tom Taylor, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Luke Whitelock, Matt Todd, George Whitelock (c), Sam Whitelock, Tom Donnelly, Nepo Laulala, Ben Funnell, Joe Moody. Reserves: Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Luke Romano, Kieran Read, Willi Heinz, Robbie Fruean, Adam Whitelock.

Officials: Referee Steve Walsh. AR1 Kane McBride, AR2 Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri, TMO Keith Brown

The Southland Times