Lowe moves to centre, de Groot to return for Highlanders

Jonah Lowe is set to get his first start at centre for the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images
Jonah Lowe is set to get his first start at centre for the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images
Jonah Lowe is the man the Highlanders have chosen to fill their hole in the midfield.

Specialist options are available to replace suspended centre Tanielu Tele’a for the game against the Hurricanes in Dunedin on Saturday night but the Highlanders feel the all-round abilities of Lowe are a good fit.

It is something of a wildcard selection given all 26 of his starts in Super Rugby have been on the wing, but Lowe has had some time at centre off the bench and played part of a game there for the Bravehearts last weekend.

"He’s played there for us already this season and he’s had a full preseason and been involved in our team, so he’s game-ready," coach Clarke Dermody said today.

"I know he’s excited to have a go and play there."

Southland stalwart Matt Whaanga and Otago youngster Jake Te Hiwi are other midfield options, while winger Timoci Tavatavanawai — who spent some time in the Chiefs game in the middle of the park — is seen as too valuable in his natural place.

"We thought Jonah has showed enough to be able to do the job for us this week.

"The other guys are probably not quite there yet."

Otago centre Josh Timu is on the bench for the Hurricanes game as he prepares to return to top rugby after nearly a year out with injury.

Dermody is confident the talented but luckless midfielder will easily adjust back to the pace of Super Rugby.

"It’s been a good challenge for him because he has had a few injuries in his career, so I guess he’s used to the rehab side of things.

"He had 40 minutes against the Crusaders Knights last week, and looked really good, and he’s a fit player anyway, so all we can do now is let him play."

The most welcome change to the Highlanders team that collapsed into a 28-0 hole against the Chiefs before a stirring comeback is the return of star prop Ethan de Groot.

He missed that game with a head knock but has come through his recovery well.

Veteran tighthead Jermaine Ainsley is having a back niggle assessed, so young Otago prop Rohan Wingham is in line to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench.

"There was a big grin when the team got named," Dermody said.

"He’s a local boy and he’s wanted this for the past couple of years he’s been with us. He’s been working hard.

"He understands it’s going to be a big challenge. The Hurricanes have been playing some good footy, especially up front, but he’s had a couple of years scrumming against Ethan now."

Highlanders lock Max Hicks returns from his wrist sprain to replace Pari Pari Parkinson, whose season has not really got going yet.

James Arscott retains the back-up halfback spot ahead of Nathan Hastie.

"They’ve both had a go and we felt that James has probably taken that opportunity. He did a good job against the Chiefs when he came on. He sped the game up for us."

Highlanders locks Mitch Dunshea and Will Tucker are nearing their returns from injury.

Dermody said the Highlanders had no real comment to make on the three-week ban dished out to Tele’a after his yellow card against the Chiefs was upgraded to a red.

"It was a clumsy clean-out and the game is getting tidied up around that area for player safety."

He did, of course, have something to say about the endless cloud hanging over the Highlanders, who will end an 18-game losing streak against New Zealand teams if they can upset the Hurricanes.

"We’re confident it will come. Hopefully it comes this week. It won’t be through lack of effort."

Highlanders team to play Hurricanes

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Jonah Lowe, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Rhys Patchell, Folau Fakatava, Tom Sanders, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Max Hicks, Fabian Holland, Saula Ma’u, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Jack Taylor, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Rohan Wingham, Oliver Haig, Nikora Broughton, James Arscott, Ajay Faleafaga, Josh Timu.