Josh Ioane has been named at inside centre for the Highlanders’ Super Rugby encounter against the Sharks in Dunedin on Friday.
Mitch Hunt, who joined the Highlanders from the Crusaders during the off-season, will start at fly-half for the 2015 champions’ opening match of the 2020 campaign.
Hunt is one of six Highlanders debutants in the matchday squad selected by head coach Aaron Mauger.
There will also be first time appearances for wings Jona Nareki and Tima Fainga’anuku. Looking to debut off the bench is the versatile former Blues utility back Michael Collins, who is joined by loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas and lock Jesse Parete.
Nareki and Fainga’anuku will be joined in the back three by Josh McKay, who starts at full-back.
Having made his debut in 2016 and become a backline mainstay since, Rob Thompson will play his 50th game for the Highlanders. A strong running centre his experience and midfield combination with Ioane should provide plenty of attacking firepower against the Sharks who started their season with a win in Round One.
Mauger said: “The squad has worked very hard during the pre-season and the players are excited by the opportunity to play in front of our home supporters at our stadium.”
The team will be captained by Otago loose forward James Lentjes.
A new-look pack and coaching staff will face their first significant overseas challenge when the Sharks front the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.
Thanks to loadshedding, many South African rugby fans were spared the chore of watching the Sharks tackle the Bulls in the first half of last week’s opener at King’s Park. The humid conditions prescribed a more tactical approach and handling errors on both sides contributed to a stop-start contest.
Those who caught the second half would have noted the Sharks’ improved physicality and execution. Whereas the Bulls and Morne Steyn, in particular, dictated proceedings in the first stanza, the Sharks dominated territory and took the bulk of their chances in the second.
That second-half performance would have boosted the confidence of a Sharks set-up that boasts a number of new faces. While Sean Everitt has been in the Sharks system for some time, 2020 marks his first season at the helm of a Super Rugby franchise. The backline boasts a familiar look in terms of personnel, but the forwards have integrated the likes of James Venter and Sikhumbuzo Notshe into their starting eight.
The Bulls applied the squeeze on the Sharks’ lineout last week. The Highlanders – who had a bye in round one – would have noted that and will surely look to target the visitors in that area on Friday.
The biggest battle will be at the breakdown, though. New Zealand teams have long set the standard in this area, and this match will show where that Sharks back-row combination of Venter, Tyler Paul and Notshe – as well as the rest of the side – stands in terms of the war for the ball on the ground.
Everitt has made mention on Venter’s progress. The openside flank could prove a key acquisition for the Sharks in 2020, and it will be interesting to see how he measures up to Highlanders skipper James Lentjes.
The Sharks have to win the forward battles this Friday. They can’t allow the Highlanders to get on to the front foot and implement their direct approach. They can’t allow All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith and co to roll out that dangerous kick-chase strategy.
The Sharks may miss Sbu Nkosi under the high ball. The Springbok wing has been ruled out this week due to injury, and the onus will be on Madosh Tambwe – who was recently moved to the Sharks from the Lions – and others in the back three to diffuse the high bombs.
Winning the set pieces and the breakdowns would go a long way toward winning the game. The Sharks have some potent individual runners and a master from broken play in Curwin Bosch. The first-five should also have a key role to play in driving the Highlanders back with his formidable kicking boot.
The Sharks have won their last two matches against the Highlanders. Overall, they’ve won five out of 11 matches against the Dunedin-based side in New Zealand.
A win on Friday would do wonders for the Sharks’ confidence. It would ensure that they take some momentum into the next tour clashes with the Hurricanes, Rebels and Reds.
Highlanders v Sharks
Forsyth Barr, Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Josh McKay, 14 Tima Fainga’anuku, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Josh Ioane, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 James Lentjes (c), 6 Dillon Hunt, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Paripari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Josh Iosefa-Scott, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Michael Collins, 23 Teariki Ben-Nicholas
Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Lukhanyo Am (c), 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Sikumbuzo Notshe, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 James Venter, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Le Roux Roets, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Boeta Chamberlain, 23 Jeremy Ward
Date: Friday, February 7
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:05 local (06:05 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Hart (New Zealand)