Highlanders at full strength for playoff

Clarke Dermody. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Clarke Dermody. Photo: Peter McIntosh
All a coach really wants the week of a playoff game is to have everyone on deck.

Clarke Dermody effectively has that luxury, and he has named his strongest possible squad as the Highlanders face the daunting task of heading to Canberra in the hope of upsetting the Brumbies in the Super Rugby quarterfinals on Saturday night.

Dermody yesterday made nine changes to the rather second-string team that finished the regular season with a 41-14 loss to the Hurricanes.

Folau Fakatava and Cameron Millar are back to take the reigns of the backline, Tanielu Tele’a makes his comeback from a knee injury at centre and Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens return to the back three.

In the forwards, Mitch Dunshea replaces Will Tucker at lock and the loose trio is rejigged with Billy Harmon moving to No 8, Sean Withy returning to the starting lineup at openside and Oliver Haig replacing Max Hicks on the blindside.

With the exception of outstanding No 8 Hugh Renton and injured Welsh first five Rhys Patchell — whose departure was followed by a series of grand displays from young playmaker Millar — Dermody has the benefit of calling on all his best players, many of whom got a rest or limited minutes last week.

"I think the benefit of qualifying when we did allowed us not to have to rush those guys back last week against the Hurricanes.

"We’re happy with the team we’ve picked. We’ve left out some good players as well."

Tele’a has done particularly well to return after copping a nasty blow to the knee against the Blues on May 18.

The Highlanders have certainly had more luck with injuries this year than last, although Dermody also highlighted the work done by new trainer James Holden.

"We definitely changed our preseason this year, and it allowed us to start the season in good shape.

"We’ve changed the way we train, and I think we’ve got more resilient players."

While Finn Hurley did not start the season as a fully contracted Highlander, the Otago tyro has made the most of his opportunities and will get a taste of playoff rugby after shining against the Hurricanes.

"He was one of the best on the pitch for us — absolutely fearless for a young player, and just willing to have a go.

"He’s hugely exciting and it’s been a bonus for us that he’s been able to get game time this year."

The Highlanders missed the playoffs last year and were one-and-done in 2023 — and they are stacked with youngsters — so there is not a lot of playoff experience in the squad.

There will be a lift in intensity regardless around the camp as the sudden-death game approaches.

"I think there’s always a lift at this time of year," Dermody said.

"Your leaders really stand up. Your best players start to come to the front. We’re lucky that’s been happening in the last five or six weeks for us.

"There’s been a really noticeable change in the team."

The often unspoken sidebar to the week of a playoff game is that it can mean the end of a player’s time in Dunedin if the result does not pan out.

It seems to be an open secret that Highlanders captain Billy Harmon is finishing with the club after this season and planning to head to Japan, while Pari Pari Parkinson and Connor Garden-Bachop — neither is in the squad for Canberra, but both have been around the team for a while — are also set to head there.

Dermody acknowledged an element of this week was wanting to keep the season alive as long as possible for players preparing to leave.

"The boys want to do well for them, outside of doing well for the club and everything we’ve done this year."

The Highlanders flew to Sydney last night, and are transferring to Canberra on a bus today.

Highlanders team

To play Brumbies

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Cameron Millar, Folau Fakatava, Billy Harmon (co-captain), Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Fabian Holland, Mitch Dunshea, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot (co-captain). Reserves: Jack Taylor, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Max Hicks, Nikora Broughton, James Arscott, Jake Te Hiwi, Finn Hurley.