Highlanders name rare unchanged team

The Highlanders have named an unchanged team for their trip to Auckland to face the Blues on...
The Highlanders have named an unchanged team for their trip to Auckland to face the Blues on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
Ethan de Groot is the answer to a good trivia question this week.

Who is the only remaining player from the last time the Highlanders named an unchanged team?

That would be the burly Southland prop, who will again captain the Highlanders in the absence of the injured Billy Harmon in the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy game against the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday night .

It is no surprise coach Clarke Dermody has named an unchanged XV — indeed, the same 23 — following the stirring 32-29 win over the Crusaders.

What is really interesting is that it has been three years since the Highlanders were last willing or able to roll out the same team in consecutive weeks.

It was in the final two weeks of the Covid-adjusted Super Rugby Transtasman competition in June 2021, when the Highlanders smashed the Brumbies in Canberra before losing the final at ... you guessed it, Eden Park.

The high turnover of players in the squad is illustrated by the fact de Groot is the only player who started in those games who will start this weekend.

Sam Gilbert and Ayden Johnstone remain on the bench from 2021.

De Groot was joined back then by Ash Dixon and Siate Tokolahi in the front row, Pari Pari Parkinson and Bryn Evans at lock, Hugh Renton, Kazuki Himeno and Harmon in the loose, and a backline featuring Aaron Smith, Mitch Hunt, Jona Nareki, Scott Gregory, Michael Collins, Patelesio Tomkinson and Josh Ioane.

While injuries to Harmon, Renton and Nareki have forced the Highlanders coaches’ hands a little, it makes sense they have kept a winning combination as they head into the final three rounds of the season.

"I think it’s just reward for the last weeks," Dermody said.

"It’s a pretty settled team now, and the boys who played the Crusaders executed the plan and did a great job.

"We’re reasonably happy. There are some guys coming back soon who are going to put a bit of pressure on selection, which is always good."

Dermody said Harmon was well off being considered for selection this week.

The nasty cut on his palm he sustained in Tonga had since got infected, and the star loose forward needed time to come right.

Centre Tanielu Tele’a is named despite failing an HIA test against the Crusaders.

Tele’a got a "whack to the face" and his smart mouthguard sent an alert for him to be checked at halftime, Dermody said.

He failed the initial HIA protocol — involving a memory test — so had to be replaced. But he passed the second stage of the protocol two days later, and again 24 hours after that, so can play this week.

Dermody said he had no issues with the smart mouthguard technology.

"Not at all. It’s so important that we look after the players.

"It’s another layer. It doesn’t automatically mean that player is off the field. It’s just a mechanism for them to be able to check the footage. If they get pulled off and pass, they can come back on straight away after halftime, and we’ve already seen that this season."

The Highlanders would dearly love to reclaim the Gordon Hunter trophy this weekend.

Dermody never actually met the man but he knows what made the late Highlanders and Blues coach so special.

"I’ve heard plenty of stories and I know he’s a big part of the Highlanders culture. Our values are pretty much what he lived.

"We’ve had some cool stories from Jamie [Joseph] already this week, and we’re going to catch up with Marc Ellis in Auckland to share a few more stories about him."

While the Highlanders rightly celebrated victory over the Crusaders, they can expect a greater challenge from the table-topping Blues.

"Obviously they’re playing with a lot of confidence at the moment.

"They’re winning close games, which is always a sign that you’ve got good belief in what you’re doing.

"They’re a good team and it’s a hard place to go and win."

The Blues are resting in-form No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, star winger Mark Tele’a and captain Patrick Tuipolotu, but first five Stephen Perofeta is fit enough to make the bench.

Highlanders v Blues

The teams

Highlanders: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Jake Te Hiwi, Martin Bogado, Cameron Millar, Folau Fakatava, Nikora Broughton, Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Fabian Holland, Mitch Dunshea, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot (captain). Reserves: Jack Taylor, Ayden Johnstone, Saula Ma’u, Will Tucker, Will Stodart, James Arscott, Sam Gilbert, Finn Hurley.

Blues: Cole Forbes, AJ Lam, Bryce Heem, Corey Evans, Caleb Clarke, Harry Plummer, Sam Nock, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i (captain), Adrian Choat, Sam Darry, Laghlan McWhannell, Marcel Renata, Kurt Eklund, Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Reserves: Soane Vikena, Mason Tupaea, Angus Ta’avao, Josh Beehre, Cameron Suafoa, Taufa Funaki, Stephen Perofeta, Kade Banks.