Faleafaga’s bench form earns him first start

Ajay Faleafaga is the third Highlander to wear the No 10 jersey in seven games. Photo: Getty Images
Ajay Faleafaga is the third Highlander to wear the No 10 jersey in seven games. Photo: Getty Images
Ajay Faleafaga’s cameo appearances were so impressive they have earned him a starring role this weekend.

The Highlanders have turned to the rookie first five as they attempt to start phase two of their season with a bang against the Rebels in Melbourne on Saturday night.

He is the third player - following Welsh veteran Rhys Patchell and fellow Otago youngster Cameron Millar - to wear the No 10 jersey in seven games.

Faleafaga remains a raw prospect with just a handful of NPC games and five appearances as a substitute in Super Rugby under his belt, but he has looked full of beans in his time on the field this year.

‘‘It’s obvious the talent that Ajay has got, and he’s done a great job for us off the bench,’’ Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody said yesterday.

‘‘He’s added real excitement to our attack and that’s the way we want to head when we go to Melbourne.

‘‘I know the boys have got confidence in his ability to run our game. It’s different to what we have in Rhys and Cam, but it’s exciting as well.’’

The move is partially related to the form of the other first fives.

Millar, who has played little rugby in the past 18 months, looked a touch off the pace in his one start for the Highlanders this season, and some time in the saddle in club rugby will do him good.

Patchell made an excellent start to the season but - and to be fair, he was not alone here - he struggled against the Chiefs and, particularly, the Hurricanes, when the Highlanders got walloped 47-12 before bye week.

The former Welsh test star does not even make the 23 this weekend as the bench includes Stags midfielder Matt Whaanga, for the first time this season, and back-three cover Connor Garden-Bachop.

‘‘We’ve got Sam Gilbert, who as we know is a pretty good utility, and that allows us to bring another outside back on to the bench,’’ Dermody said.

‘‘Rhys probably didn’t have his best game in the last couple of weeks. He’s acknowledged that as well, so he’s got an opportunity to get his game back in order and be ready for when we need him.’’

Jona Nareki has made a swift recovery from the knock he suffered against the Hurricanes - what was feared to be a serious ankle complaint turned out to be more of a bruised shin - so the rest of the backline is unchanged.

Oliver Haig charges forward in the match against the Hurricanes in Dunedin recently. Photo: Getty...
Oliver Haig charges forward in the match against the Hurricanes in Dunedin recently. Photo: Getty Images
Plenty to talk about in the forwards, though.

Lock Fabian Holland and No 8 Tom Sanders are both ruled out due to HIA protocol.

Pari Pari Parkinson returns to the second row, where he is joined by youngster Oliver Haig, who replaces Max Hicks.

Fellow lock Will Tucker made his comeback to club rugby at the weekend but will need to have another couple of runs at that level before being considered for selection.

Nikora Broughton gets a second start of the season in place of Sanders at the back of the scrum.

Intriguingly, Dermody has given long-serving prop Daniel Lienert-Brown a rare start and nudged All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot to the bench.

It is no reflection on the outstanding de Groot but a tactical move to ensure the Highlanders are braced to combat the Rebels, particularly wrecking ball finisher Taniela Tupou, in the final quarter.

‘‘The Rebels have really used their set piece late in the game, and that’s part of it.

‘‘They use that to get 22m entries, and they’re a big team with a good maul and a big scrum, so that’s part of our thinking.’’

In a year in which they have blooded a stack of newcomers, the Highlanders will have potentially two more this weekend.

Highlanders under-20 captain Will Stodart and Wellington newcomer Hugo Plummer, elevated from the wider squad, are both on the bench for the first time.


Highlanders team to play Rebels

AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kickoff: 9.35pm (NZ time)

Team: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Jonah Lowe, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Ajay Faleafaga, Folau Fakatava, Nikora Broughton, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Pari Pari Parkinson, Oliver Haig, Saula Ma’u, Henry Bell, Daniel Lienert-Brown.

Reserves: Ricky Jackson, Ethan de Groot, Rohan Wingham, Hugo Plummer, Will Stodart, James Arscott, Matt Whaanga, Connor Garden-Bachop.