Highlanders name new-look side for season opener

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens is part of a rejigged backline for the Highlanders. Photo: Getty...
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens is part of a rejigged backline for the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images
There are five debutants and an Ethan de Groot-sized hole in the first Highlanders team of the Super Rugby Pacific season.

A new era will really begin when the Highlanders host Moana Pasifika on Saturday night.

Remarkably, just five players — loose forwards Billy Harmon and Hugh Renton, lock Pari Pari Parkinson, second five Sam Gilbert and winger Jona Nareki — remain from their last competitive game, against the Blues in the final round of the 2023 season.

An unexpected bystander at a Forsyth Barr Stadium set to be packed with students will be All Blacks prop de Groot, who made his first appearance of the preseason against the Crusaders last week but has been deemed not quite ready for the real action.

"Ethan will be watching the game with the other boys that haven’t been selected," coach Clarke Dermody said today.

"He had a bit of a knee injury a couple of weeks ago. He had a bit of a run against the Crusaders and I just felt he wasn’t quite ready to play.

"We felt like it was best to give Ethan another week of training to get him up to speed.

"It’s nothing around his knee. He’s fully fit. He just hasn’t quite got the miles under his belt."

The vastly experienced Daniel Lienert-Brown will get a rare start in de Groot’s absence.

On the tighthead side, the rising Saula Ma’u gets the nod over Jermaine Ainsley.

"Saula has been one of our strongest performers in the preseason," Dermody said.

"The way we set up our preseason was to get players competing for positions, and I feel like he’s put his hand up to take that spot."

Henry Bell gets the first chance to lay claim to the vacant hooker’s jersey, and Parkinson is good to go after a couple of minor niggles in the preseason.

The latter is the senior hand in the second row but rising star Fabian Holland, continuing his development as he becomes eligible for the All Blacks next year, will run the lineout.

A radically rejigged Highlanders backline features Welsh veteran Rhys Patchell at first five, former Blues man Tanielu Tele’a at centre, and the new 1-2 punch of Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai at the back.

There will be plenty of Highlanders fans hoping the backs can find a spark that was missing last year, though there might be a feeling it will take a while for the new combination to gel.

"The team we’ve picked have been strong performers in the preseason, so I think they’ve got a bit of cohesion," Dermody said.

"They haven’t played 50 games together but they’ve had three. We’re optimistic to see how they go.

"I feel like the performances they’ve put in as a unit have been pretty strong so far, but as we know, there’s a bit more pressure when points are on offer, so hopefully they can stick to the plan we’ve set out."

New vice-captain Sam Gilbert begins life as a specialist second five, and his and Patchell’s influence will be critical.

There are some points of interest on the bench.

Southland youngster Jack Taylor gets the back-up hooker role, Oliver Haig will cover No 6 and lock, Nathan Hastie is the preferred back-up halfback, and Jonah Lowe will cover both wing and centre.

Highlanders team

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Rhys Patchell, Folau Fakatava, Hugh Renton, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Fabian Holland, Pari Pari Parkinson, Saula Ma’u, Henry Bell, Daniel Lienert-Brown.

Reserves: Jack Taylor, Ayden Johnstone, Jermaine Ainsley, Oliver Haig, Nikora Broughton, Nathan Hastie, Cameron Millar, Jonah Lowe.