The Highlanders take on the Waratahs in Newcastle tonight in a game that is part dress rehearsal, part trial.
Coach Jamie Joseph has tried to strike a balance between giving squad members a chance to push for a starting spot in the season opener against the Blues and putting together the combinations that give him the best chance of winning games during the season proper.
Joseph has to decide who will steer his team in the home game against the Blues on March 2, with Lima Sopoaga, Willie Ripia and Hayden Parker all getting opportunities during the pre-season.
The front row is a work in progress, while there are also five contracted locks and two spots available.
The loose forward situation has been complicated by injuries, with Elliot Dixon (hamstring) and Nasi Manu (pectoral) missing this week.
Tasman captain Shane Christie gets his first chance to impress after overcoming a knee injury.
Joseph has been keen to give everyone a chance during the pre-season, which includes a win over the Brumbies and a loss to the Crusaders to date.
"Where possible we've tried to do that, but we've been affected by injuries. One of the things we didn't want to do was go to Australia and risk those players for competition games."
The Highlanders are still assessing their resources after losing Buxton Popoali'i for the season with a heart condition.
With outside backs Trent Renata and Richard Buckman already promoted from the wider training group, the Highlanders could look at covering for their injury-prone loose forwards or bolster their front-row stocks after initially signing only five props for the season.
Tonight's game will also give the few rookies in the Highlanders squad a chance to test their travelling ability.
"All the guys who haven't been in the mix are getting a trip away with us, and that's important. It's all very well to jump on a plane and fly to Motueka, but this is taking it to another level," Joseph said.
"We are flying to Sydney, bussing to Newcastle and then expecting [them] to perform. It's great experience for those guys."
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (c), Patrick Osborne, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Kurt Baker, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Shane Christie, John Hardie, Gareth Evans, Josh Bekhuis, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris King, Ged Robinson, Kane Hames. Reserves: Brayden Mitchell, Matias Diaz, Craig Millar, Joe Wheeler, Tom Franklin, TJ Ioane, Lee Allan, Frae Wilson, Hayden Parker, Phil Burleigh, Winston Stanley, Richard Buckman.
- The Southland Times
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