Highlanders skipper out of Crusaders clash

Billy Harmon will miss the clash with the Crusaders. Photo: Getty Images
Billy Harmon will miss the clash with the Crusaders. Photo: Getty Images
Billy Harmon will miss the opportunity to claim southern bragging rights over his former team.

The Highlanders captain has been scratched — literally — from the derby against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night.

‘‘Billy got a cut on his hand in Tonga, just before halftime, so he had to get that stitched up,’’ Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody said today.

‘‘Unfortunately it hasn’t healed. He’s just not in a state to play this week but we’re hoping it’s not going to keep him out too long.’’

Nikora Broughton will replace Harmon at No 8, while the captaincy will fall to Ethan de Groot, who was given a rest when the Highlanders played Moana Pasifika in Nuku’alofa but reclaims the No 1 jersey for the Crusaders.

It will always the plan to have de Groot, who made the most of his time at home in Southland for duck-shooting weekend, miss the Tongan trip to count as an All Blacks rest week and prepare for the old enemy, Dermody said.

‘‘He had a great weekend. He still trained hard. He was getting back to some good form before he left, so he’s hugely motivated against a pretty powerful scrum.’’

There is also a change on the other side of the scrum, where Jermaine Ainsley will aim to turn his injury-affected season into a fond farewell as he counts down the weeks till he heads to France.

The only other change to the starting XV is on the left wing, where Martin Bogado replaces Connor Garden-Bachop, who was having an outstanding game in Tonga before suffering a head knock.

Young midfielder Jake Te Hiwi holds on to the No 12 jersey for a third straight week.

It is a reasonable discussion point as it means vice-captain Sam Gilbert is again left on the bench.

‘‘Jake is playing well,’’ Dermody said. ‘‘As always, if you play well, you get selected.

‘‘We felt like Sam’s form had, not dipped, just sort of got a bit stagnant in the middle of the season, so Jake got his opportunity, and he’s playing well.

‘‘Sam’s got a huge role in the team still. He’s one of our senior leaders, and he’s got a big job coming off the bench.’’

Otago youngsters Will Stodart and Finn Hurley come into the reserves.

The Highlanders are feeling buoyant after two straight wins and in the knowledge there have already been 15,000 tickets sold for the game.

While the Crusaders are battling — are, in fact, having an abysmal season by their ridiculously high standards — Dermody would not be drawn when it was suggested they might be there for the taking.

‘‘I think any time we play the Crusaders is an awesome occasion.

‘‘We haven’t played them at home for a few years, and the rivalry has been there since day one of the competition, so the boys are really looking forward to it.

‘‘There’s always a lift in intensity for natural reasons. You know, we’re neighbours. The boys are hugely excited.

‘‘I think they’re a quality team. They’ve got good players across the pitch, so we’re preparing for their best and we know we have to play well to beat them.

‘‘It’s another chance for us to play the Crusaders, which is the pinnacle for us down here.’’

Highlanders team to play Crusaders

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Jake Te Hiwi, Martin Bogado, Cameron Millar, Folau Fakatava, Nikora Broughton, Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Fabian Holland, Mitch Dunshea, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot (captain).

Reserves: Jack Taylor, Ayden Johnstone, Saula Ma’u, Will Tucker, Will Stodart, James Arscott, Sam Gilbert, Finn Hurley.