Gilbert has much to prove at 10

Highlanders co-captain James Lentjes followed up a comment about goal kicking with a wry smile.

The Highlanders dropped a selection bomb on Wednesday, naming Sam Gilbert to start at first five.

Gilbert has shifted between fullback and winger for the Highlanders and has not played any top-level rugby in the position.

Coach Tony Brown is confident Gilbert has the skillset to step into the role.

He has a big punt, he is a good communicator, a strong defender and he kicks off the tee well, Brown said earlier in the week.

And arguably the Highlanders need to get more out of that position. Some of the positional kicking has not been that flash.

Sam Gilbert, of the Highlanders, scores a try during his team’s round 11 Super Rugby Pacific...
Sam Gilbert, of the Highlanders, scores a try during his team’s round 11 Super Rugby Pacific match against the Fijian Drua at ANZ Stadium in Suva, Fiji, last month. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

But it is big risk to thrust a player into such a crucial role who has actually been the Highlanders’ most consistent outside back.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there have been one or two questions asked from inside the camp as well.

The forwards must swivel around each week and ask themselves who is playing in the backs tonight.

The Highlanders have been constantly tinkering with the line-up as they look to get the most out of the available talent.

Gilbert’s shift to first five is big, but Josh Timu has also been named at centre, the impressive Thomas Umaga-Jensen shifts in one spot to second five and midfielder Fetuli Paea moves to the wing where Gilbert was playing.

The pack has been a lot more consistent and it is where the Highlanders’ strengths lie.

If they are going to win the game against the Force, they will most likely win it up front.

"Our set piece has been strong and has been something we’ve had to rely on to win those games," Lentjes said.

"Obviously Nuggy [Aaron Smith] and Sam will run our game with certain moves, but we [the forwards] just get on with it.

"I think we’ll be playing how we usually do. [Gilbert’s] got a big boot and he can kick goals from a long way out as well.

"But hopefully we aren’t relying on goal kicks to win the game," he said, following the word "hopefully" with a pause and that wry smile.

With regular goal-kicker Mitch Hunt on the bench and back-up Marty Banks not selected in the 23, Gilbert will get that job as well.

The game against the Force has the feel of an elimination bout. Both teams are gunning for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Lentjes is expecting a tight match.

"I think they’ll probably play a wee bit different compared to the other Australian teams.

"They move the ball a lot and hold the ball a lot. And I think they will be desperate like we are.

"We’re sort of sitting in the same spot on the table, so it is a very important game."

For the Force, former All Black Jeremy Thrush gets the nod at lock and will start alongside Wallaby Izack Rodda.

Halfback Ian Prior rejoins the starting line-up after Issak Fines-Leleiwasa was ruled out of selection with a foot injury.

Manasa Mataele has completed his HIA protocols and will play on the left wing.

Former All Black and Highlanders player Richard Kahui has been named on the bench.

Super Rugby Pacific, Forsyth Barr Stadium, 7.05pm today

Highlanders: Connor Garden-Bachop, Fetuli Paea, Josh Timu, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Scott Gregory, Sam Gilbert, Aaron Smith (co-captain), Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Billy Harmon, James Lentjes (co-captain), Josh Dickson, Bryn Evans, Jermaine Ainsley, Andrew Makalio, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Fabian Holland, Hugh Renton, Folau Fakatava, Mitch Hunt, Liam Coombes-Fabling.

Force: Jake Strachan, Byron Ralston, Kyle Godwin (captain), Bayley Kuenzle, Manasa Mataele, Reesjan Pasitoa, Ian Prior, Tim Anstee, Ollie Callan, Fergus Lee-Warner, Izack Rodda, Jeremy Thrush, Santiago Medrano, Andrew Ready, Tom Robertson. Reserves: Feleti Kaitu’u, Angus Wagner, Bo Abra, Ryan McCauley, Brynard Stander, Michael McDonald, Jake McIntyre, Richard Kahui.



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