Contest to see who fills Fekitoa's shoes begins

Highlanders midfielder Tei Walden runs with the ball at training at Logan Park yesterday while Tyrel Lomax (left) and Matt Faddes look on. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Highlanders midfielder Tei Walden runs with the ball at training at Logan Park yesterday while Tyrel Lomax (left) and Matt Faddes look on. Photo: Gregor Richardson
The duel for the Highlanders midfield gets its first hit-out this Friday night and is shaping up as an intriguing contest.

The Highlanders are set to take the field for the first time in 2018 when the team takes on the Waratahs in Queenstown, its first pre-season game of the year.

Many pre-season games can become Mickey Mouse affairs as players come and go and the score seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

But there are always contests within contests and one of the most interesting is the one of who is going to fill the considerable shoes left by departed centre Malakai Fekitoa.

There are some options for new coach Aaron Mauger although injury has already played its part.

The worst affected is centre Thomas Umaga-Jensen who has been forced to have a shoulder operation and will not be back until May or June. His season could well be over.

He has been replaced in the side by Terrence Hepetema, a midfielder who has been around the traps but now plays for Bay of Plenty.

Sio Tomkinson has picked up a knee injury and, athough it is not too serious, he is unlikely to play this Friday.

Richard Buckman has been a versatile player for the Highlanders of late, popping up in the midfield, on the wing and also at fullback. He played in the midfield as the Highlanders won the title in 2015.

Mauger said Buckman was on a graduated return to play as he had played 18 months in a row. He did not play in Japan this season but has had three seasons back to back and he was trying to get rid of some injury niggles. He was not training yesterday.

Also in contention for the midfield are Matt Faddes, who has played centre for the Highlanders, Tei Walden and Rob Thompson.

Thompson has just signed a new contract with the Highlanders which will keep him at the franchise until 2020.

Mauger said the pre-season would be a chance for midfield candidates to put their name forward for a starting spot.

''There is plenty of competition there. Some guys there who have a bit of experience and then there are some new guys.

''We'll see how they go in the next couple of games and learn a bit about them.''

The Highlanders will head to Queenstown tomorrow and will have a bit of a run round in Alexandra on the way.

The All Blacks have come into camp so a full batch will be at training this week although none are expected to play in Queenstown.

The match will consist of three 30-minute periods which Mauger said would allow players that they wanted to look at have a decent period on the field.

No-one would play the whole game but some would play more than half .

Mauger said the side has had no complaints about the hot weather in Dunedin and just got on with training.

''We have not made too much of an issue about it. We strike these conditions when we are playing. We are playing in the tens in a couple of weeks and that is what we expect over there.

''When we head to South Africa we play in these conditions. You just carry on. It is what it is.''

Mauger confirmed the whole squad would travel to Brisbane next week for the tens tournament as they would treat the trip as a form of training camp and also a chance for the squad to bond.

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