Highlanders make 10 changes for Reds clash

Oliver Haig will shift to his preferred position on the blindside as part of a major shake-up to...
Oliver Haig will shift to his preferred position on the blindside as part of a major shake-up to the team that lost to the Rebels. Photo: Getty Images
Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody has opted for an almighty shake-up as his hurting team try to bounce back from a pair of heavy losses.

Dermody has made no fewer than 10 changes for the clash with the Reds in Brisbane tomorrow night.

That suggests either a stern message is being sent to some players that their form is not good enough — understandable, as they are coming off poor performances against the Rebels and Hurricanes — or the brains trust feel some new thinking is required for a tricky game at Suncorp Stadium.

Looks like it might be a little bit of both.

"I felt like we created enough to win that game in Melbourne," Dermody said from the Gold Coast today.

"When we scored, we let them in straight away, and didn’t create any pressure on, and we weren’t happy with how that game ended up.

"So it’s a little bit around that performance but also, I guess, an indication of how we want to play the game against the Reds."

Two of the changes will barely raise a flicker.

All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot returns to the starting XV in place of Daniel Lienert-Brown, and Tanielu Tele’a returns from suspension to reclaim the No 13 jersey in place of the injured Jonah Lowe.

But then things get really interesting.

There is a complete rejig of the loose forward trio with robust youngster Oliver Haig moving from lock to the blindside, Sean Withy switching flanks, and captain Billy Harmon moving to No 8.

It is a second straight start but first at No 6 for Haig, a third start at openside for Withy, and Harmon’s first Highlanders start at the back of the scrum as the skipper becomes the fourth No 8 used this season.

Big Wellington ring-in Hugo Plummer takes Haig’s spot beside Pari Pari Parkinson in the second row to make his first Super Rugby start.

"Sean and Billy have been our most consistent loose forwards, and we want them on the park, but we also want a bigger presence in our forward pack," Dermody said.

"Hence Hugo comes in with Pari at lock, and that moves Oli Haig, who was selected as player of the day by the boys against the Rebels. We thought he did a great job around the set piece, and this gives him a chance to play in his favoured position, and he’s earnt that.

"Oli is actually a better player on the edge. That’s what his skillset is better suited to. It was a really mature performance from a young guy, and we’re excited to see him play at 6."

The final change in the pack is the introduction of Ricky Jackson to become the third starting hooker used by the Highlanders this season.

A new inside combination and an unexpected change at fullback feature in the backs.

James Arscott earns just a second Highlanders start at halfback, and Cam Millar gets a third at first five, as Folau Fakatava — who has been good in patches this season — and rookie playmaker Ajay Faleafaga are benched.

"The Reds kick a lot and they’re patient in their kicking game," Dermody said.

"Both Jimmy and Cam have got the job of controlling that."

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, who has started all seven games and leads the Highlanders in tries, carries, metres gained and defenders beaten, is benched in place of Connor Garden-Bachop.

Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens also leads the Highlanders in an unwanted statistic — he has three yellow cards — and while Garden-Bachop has had an inconsistent career, he has the ability to spark an attack.

"Connor came on and really impacted the game against the Rebels. I thought he played with a lot of freedom and created quite a bit around our counter-attack," Dermody said.

"Jacob probably hasn’t been playing as well as he started the season, and he’s given away those yellow cards, so there are areas around defence in pressure situations that he’s working on.

"Bringing Folau, Ajay and Jacob on — hopefully we can finish the game pretty strong."

Highlanders team to play Reds

Connor Garden-Bachop, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Cameron Millar, James Arscott, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Pari Pari Parkinson, Hugo Plummer, Saula Ma’u, Ricky Jackson, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Henry Bell, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Rohan Wingham, Will Stodart, Nikora Broughton, Folau Fakatava, Ajay Faleafaga, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.