De Groot to lead unchanged Highlanders in Blues clash

Ethan de Groot. File photo
Ethan de Groot. File photo
Ethan de Groot is the answer to a good trivia question this week.

Who is the only remaining player from the last time the Highlanders named an unchanged team?

That would be the burly Southland prop, who will again captain the Highlanders in the absence of the injured Billy Harmon in the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy game against the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday night .

It is no surprise coach Clarke Dermody has named an unchanged XV — indeed, the same 23 — following the stirring 32-29 win over the Crusaders.

What is really interesting is that it has been three years since the Highlanders were last willing or able to roll out the same team in consecutive weeks.

It was in the final two weeks of the Covid-adjusted Super Rugby Transtasman competition in June 2021, when the Highlanders smashed the Brumbies in Canberra before losing the final at . . . you guessed it, Eden Park.

The high turnover of players in the squad is illustrated by the fact de Groot is the only player who started in those games who will start this weekend.

Sam Gilbert and Ayden Johnstone remain on the bench from 2021.

De Groot was joined back then by Ash Dixon and Siate Tokolahi in the front row, Pari Pari Parkinson and Bryn Evans at lock, Hugh Renton, Kazuki Himeno and Harmon in the loose, and a backline featuring Aaron Smith, Mitch Hunt, Jona Nareki, Scott Gregory, Michael Collins, Patelesio Tomkinson and Josh Ioane.

While injuries to Harmon, Renton and Nareki have forced the Highlanders coaches’ hands a little, it makes sense they have kept a winning combination as they head into the final three rounds of the season.

‘‘I think it’s just reward for the last weeks,’’ Dermody said.

‘‘It’s a pretty settled team now, and the boys who played the Crusaders executed the plan and did a great job.

‘‘We’re reasonably happy. There are some guys coming back soon who are going to put a bit of pressure on selection, which is always good.’’

Dermody said Harmon was well off being considered for selection this week.

The nasty cut on his palm he sustained in Tonga had since got infected, and the star loose forward needed time to come right.

Centre Tanielu Tele’a is named despite failing an HIA test against the Crusaders.

Tele’a got a ‘‘whack to the face’’ and his smart mouthguard sent an alert for him to be checked at halftime, Dermody said.

He failed the initial HIA protocol — involving a memory test — so had to be replaced. But he passed the second stage of the protocol two days later, and again 24 hours after that, so can play this week.

Highlanders team to play Blues

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.