Hurley to start at fullback as Highlanders ring changes

Highlanders Finn Hurley (L) and Sam Gilbert celebrate during their match against the Crusaders in...
Highlanders Finn Hurley (L) and Sam Gilbert celebrate during their match against the Crusaders in Dunedin earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images
Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody has taken the opportunity to rest a swag of players with one eye on the playoffs next week.

Dermody has made no fewer than seven changes to the starting team to play the in-form Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday in their final Super Rugby Pacific round robin clash.

After being named most valuable player at the Highlanders awards last night, Timoci Tavatavanawai has been rested this week — missing his first game all season — alongside quality fullback Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.

The switch gives young Finn Hurley his first start at fullback and he will be supported by Jona Nareki and Connor Garden-Bachop on the outside.

Matt Whaanga gets his chance at centre to link up with Sam Gilbert at second five, and Ajay Faleafaga retains the No 10 jersey.

James Arscott gets just his second start of the season at halfback in place of Folau Fakatava, who will inject plenty off the bench.

Flanker Sean Withy, who has played some big minutes this season, Oliver Haig and Mitch Dunshea have also been left out of the game day 23.

It has meant a reshuffle in the loose forwards with Nikora Broughton coming in at No 8, Billy Harmon — named at co-captain alongside Ethan de Groot — on the openside and Max Hicks packs down at blind side.

Big Fabian Holland will pack down with Will Tucker at lock and the front row remains stable in de Groot, Henry Bell and Jermaine Ainsley.

Young flanker Hayden Michaels is also in line to make his Highlanders debut off the bench.

With the team sitting seventh and having already secured a playoffs spot, Dermody said it was a good chance to rest players who had big workloads this season.

‘‘I think it’s going to be important in the longer run and that gives us an opportunity to give guys an opportunity to get ready for the playoffs,’’ Dermody said.

They will be full of confidence after a good 39-3 win against the Fijian Drua last weekend.

‘‘I’m really happy with how we executed our game plan against the Drua.

‘‘We need to continue to build on that progress and the players that have come in to the starting XV are clear on their roles allowing us to rest the likes of Timoci, Sean and Jacob.’’

Highlanders team to play the Hurricanes

Finn Hurley, Connor Garden-Bachop, Matt Whaanga, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Ajay Faleafaga, James Arscott, Nikora Broughton, Billy Harmon, Max Hicks, Fabian Holland, Will Tucker, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Jack Taylor, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saulua Ma’u, Tom Sanders, Hayden Michaels, Folau Fakatava and Martin Bogado.