Highlanders make three changes for Blues clash

Ethan de Groot will make his first start of the season against the Blues in Melbourne Saturday...
Ethan de Groot will make his first start of the season against the Blues in Melbourne Saturday night. Photo: Craig Baxter
The Highlanders are not tinkering — they are strengthening.

They have made three changes to the starting pack for their match against the Blues in Melbourne tomorrow night.

All Black prop Ethan de Groot gets his first run for the club this season, and fellow bookend Jermaine Ainsley moves from the bench to the run-on side.

Lock Max Hicks missed selection for the opener, but is preferred ahead of Fabian Holland, who drops to the bench following a taxing game during the 35-21 win against Moana Pasifika in Dunedin on Saturday.

The backline is unchanged. The Highlanders showed some flair out wide which has been missing in recent seasons. No tinkering or strengthening needed there.

There was the odd issue up front, which de Groot’s introduction may help solve.

Coach Clarke Dermody said he was not entirely happy with how the scrum performed at the start of the game last week, and Saturday night would be a "real big challenge".

But he did indicate both loosehead props performed well.

"That has put selection pressure on Ethan this week, so now it is up to him to show us what he can do," Dermody said.

"We know how he can play and we’re looking forward to seeing him go."

Holland’s demotion to the bench was as much about managing the young man’s workload as providing an opportunity for Hicks, who Dermody said "was one of our standouts in the preseason".

"Fabian was pretty banged up but he was available to start. But we decided to go this way to manage the load on all the locks."

Back-up first five Cameron Millar will play a full game for the Bravehearts this weekend to get some game time under his belt, which means Ajay Faleafaga comes on to the bench.

"That will be good for his [Millar’s] development and give Ajay a chance to show us what he can do," Dermody said.

"He has a different game to the other two 10s, so we want to see what that looks like coming off the bench. 

"We feel like his point of difference is his running game and we will look to implement that, hopefully later in the game."

All Black prop Ofa Tu’unga fasi and loose forward Akira Ioane return to bolster the Blues side, while Laghlan McWhannell gets an opportunity at lock.

The Blues registered a 34-10 win against the Fijian Drua in Whangarei on Saturday.

Highlanders v Blues

Melbourne, Saturday, 8pm

Highlanders: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Telea, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Rhys Patchell, Folau Fakatava, Hugh Renton, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Max Hicks, Pari Pari Parkinson, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Ricky Jackson, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Mau, Fabian Holland, Nikora Broughton, Nathan Hastie, Ajay Faleafaga, Jonah Lowe.

Blues: Zarn Sullivan, Mark Tele’a, AJ Lam, Bryce Heem, Caleb Clarke, Stephen Perofeta, Taufa Funaki, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papali’i (c), Akira Ioane, Sam Darry, Laghlan McWhannell, Marcel Renata, Ricky Riccitelli, Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Reserves: Soane Vikena, Joshua Fusitu’a, Angus Ta’avao, Josh Beehre, Adrian Choat, Sam Nock, Harry Plummer, Cole Forbes.