Dixon back after cooling heels

The Highlanders' Elliot Dixon trains at Logan Park this week.PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The Highlanders' Elliot Dixon trains at Logan Park this week.PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
If it was up to Elliot Dixon he would have laced his boots up two weeks ago.

But the former All Black was asked to sit out the Highlanders' opening two games while he recovered from his stint with the Ricoh Black Rams the Top League in Japan.

The view from the sidelines has been, well, difficult. He could not watch the last 10 minutes of the Highlanders' dramatic 36-31 win against the Reds last Friday.

He went down into the tunnel and had a lolly instead. It was a cathartic sugar splurge which most of us will be able to understand.

This week if he dips into the bag of "jet planes" - no-one can resist those little nuggets - he will have earned it. The Highlanders loose forward has been named at No 8 for the game against the Rebels in Melbourne tonight.

He replaces the hard-working Luke Whitelock, who is being rested for the match.

Dixon has played in 93 Super Rugby games for the franchise and is hoping he will reach 100 this season.

"I'm not looking at those numbers and counting them down every day," he said.

"But it would be a nice goal for me to reach and a pretty cool milestone."

There is a lot of healthy competition for starting spots in the loose, though. Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Marino Mikaele Tu and even Jackson Hemopo can fit in somewhere on the side or at the back of the scrum.

"It is hard decision for the coaches, which is good for us. Barring injuries, we get to rotate and we don't have to flog the same three every week."

Dixon arrived home from Japan in late January and was initially keen to get straight back to work. But the rest proved valuable.

He enjoyed the experience of playing in Top League. The Rams were knocked out in the quarterfinal by eventual winners the Kobelco Steelers.

He felt the level of rugby was somewhere between the ITM Cup and Super Rugby. The pace of the game was rapid but the physicality was down a notch.

His team-mates have been very curious about his experiences. The Top League is increasingly becoming a good option for players who want to increase their salary but still be able to play rugby in New Zealand.

Elliot said without the Japanese pathway he would likely have inked a deal to play in Europe and would have been loss to the Highlanders.

"I was close to going for good. I was about to head off but a wee little deal with Ricoh, which was awesome ... kept me in New Zealand.

"I think it is a good option for New Zealanders to go and try something different for a few years and then come back refreshed."

The other major pull was the lure of the black jersey. The three-game All Black still harbours ambitions to play for his country.

"That was another factor why I didn't sign over in Europe. But for me it is about getting back into the Highlanders' season and getting back into the forward pack and the starting three [loose forward positions] is a pretty big ask at the moment."

Highlanders v Rebels

Melbourne, tonight, 9.45pm.

Highlanders: Josh Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Teihorangi Walden, Josh McKay, Bryn Gatland, Kayne Hammington, Elliot Dixon, James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Pari Pari Parkinson, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (c), Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ricky Jackson, Ayden Johnstone, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Tom Franklin, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Folau Fakatava, Patelesio Tomkinson, Marty Banks.

Rebels: Dane Haylett-Petty, Jack Maddocks, Tom English, Billy Meakes, Marika Koroibete, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Isi Naisarani, Brad Wilkin, Angus Cottrell, Matt Philip, Luke Jones, Sam Talakai, Anaru Rangi, Tetera Faulkner. Reserves: Robbie Abel, Matt Gibbon, Jermaine Ainsley, Adam Coleman, Richard Hardwick, Rob Leota, Michael Ruru, Reece Hodge.

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