Highlanders’ injury concerns easing

Tom Donnelly, left and Thomas Umaga-Jensen during a Highlanders training at Logan Park. PHOTO:...
Tom Donnelly, left and Thomas Umaga-Jensen during a Highlanders training at Logan Park. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

Things could be looking up for the Highlanders both on the injury front and in terms of their rebuilding lineout.

"Only" 13 players are at this stage listed as unavailable for Friday night when they head north to play Moana Pasifika in search of a third straight win.

That is a healthy step down from the 21 technically unavailable in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s 57-24 shellacking of the Fijian Drua at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Notably absent from the scratched list yesterday were outstanding loose forwards Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, while it appears hooker Andrew Makalio will also be back on deck after a concussion stand-down.

There will also be some relief at the return of star midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen, a late withdrawal from the Drua game with a minor hip complaint, though Sam Gilbert did a sterling job in his absence.

Young lock Fabian Holland is close but not quite ready to play after tweaking his hamstring, while the midfield is still going to be a little short on options thanks to the absence of Josh Timu and Jake Te Hiwi.

The new face on the sidelined list yesterday was Argentina winger Martin Bogado, who scored a brace of tries against the Drua but, in doing so, sustained a quadriceps injury.

The Highlanders, while the situation has been thrust upon them by so much bad luck to start the season, have plenty of faith in all the fringe players and ring-ins who have had a chance.

They have also restored some faith in their lineout, which struggled in the early rounds against New Zealand opposition but has been almost back to its accurate best in the past couple of weeks.

Assistant coach Tom Donnelly, the former All Blacks lock charged with getting the Highlanders' set piece humming, said it had been a pleasing development.

"We struggled early on, and obviously the lads have put in a lot of hard work to fix some of the fundamental issues we were having.

"We just nailed our basics really well [on Saturday], which gave us the opportunity to get some clean lineout ball.

"It’s a bit of a line in the sand because it’s where we need to be every week in this competition."

While the lineout is not as murky as the scrum, it is still not always easy to pinpoint where things go wrong.

"If there was one simple answer, lineouts could be solved pretty easily," Donnelly said.

"There are so many moving components to a lineout. Timing is one, lifting technique, jumping technique, jumping in the right spot, hookers getting their timing right.

"It’s just a matter of, I suppose, process of elimination. You look through all the different areas, and if you’ve found one that’s a little bit off, try and fix that then move on to the next one."

Highlanders rookie Holland, though ineligible for a couple of years, is among a handful of rising locks seeking to get their opportunities when the old guard finishes up.

Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have formed arguably the best locking combination in All Blacks history, but Donnelly thinks there is some good talent coming through.

"I actually think we’ve got some locks that have been around a while now that will hopefully get an opportunity at the next level," he said.

"There is also a really good group of youngsters that are coming through.

"It’s one position where you can’t coach height, and we’re lucky enough that we do have some tall timber that will get an opportunity when those more experienced guys leave."