Nareki ready to fire in key game for Landers

Highlanders winger Jona Nareki warms up during a training session at Forsyth Barr Stadium in...
Highlanders winger Jona Nareki warms up during a training session at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin earlier this week. PHOTO GERARD O’BRIEN
There is never a smile far from Jona Nareki’s face.

The Highlander is a happy camper until he is confined to the sideline.

And the 26-year-old has had plenty of time on the sideline.

The electric winger missed the entire 2022 season when he ruptured his ACL playing for Otago in August the previous year.

That was a long rehab, that one.

He got a foot injury in 2023 and missed some more matches.

And then there was that ruptured testicle when he helped Otago win the Ranfurly Shield in 2018.

That certainly put his latest hamstring complaint into perspective.

Still, he missed more games, including the win against the Crusaders in Dunedin, and that made him a little jumpy.

"It is frustrating. I missed the heritage game which we played against the Crusaders and just watching it I really wanted to be out there," he said.

"There was a big crowd and they were getting behind the boys and we were playing well. I was sitting there and was like I just want to push myself to just get one step closer.

"But that was the problem previously. I would skip a few steps in my rehab and come back and get injured again."

That should not be problem this time. Nareki was good to go last weekend but the Highlanders decided to hold him back for tomorrow’s important game against the Fijian Drua in Dunedin.

The Highlanders (23 points) can go a long way towards clinching a playoff spot with a win, and the same is true for the Drua (21 points).

They occupy the last two playoffs spots going into the penultimate round of pool play.

It has the feel of a playoff game.

And for Nareki it is an extra special match. He was born in Fiji.

"I’ve always wanted to play against them but I keep missing the opportunity to play.

"Rugby is massive over there. It is just what you do — you pick up a rugby ball and want to be a rugby player."

Nareki grew up in New Zealand but inherited that Fijian passion for the game.

That said, he is hoping to use it to "pressure them".

Nareki will have to be on alert while defending as well. The Drua have the most accurate scrum in the competition, but they are known for an expansive brand of rugby.

They look to attack when the play becomes unstructured, something Nareki enjoys himself.

That kind of rugby is well-suited to Forsyth Barr Stadium where there is always a dry track.

"For us it is about slowing things down and making them play a more structured game."

It will be a notable occasion for Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, who will bring up his 50th Super Rugby match for the team.

"It’s taken me six years to get to 50 with a few injuries but I am excited and grateful to make the 50 game mark," he said.

"I have always enjoyed my time here in the South — I love the place and the fans. This club means a lot to me and I am looking forward to Sunday."

Super Rugby

Dunedin, Sunday at 2:05pm

Highlanders:  Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Jake Te Hiwi, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Ajay Faleagaga, Folau Fakatava, Billy Harmon (co-captain), Sean Withy, Oliver Haig, Fabian Holland, Mitch Dunshea, Jermaine Ainsley, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot (co-captain).

Reserves: Jack Taylor, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Max Hicks, Nikora Broughton, James Arscott, Matt Whaanga, Connor Garden-Bachop.

Fijian Drua:  Ilaisa Droasese, Selestino Ravutaumada, Iosefo Masi, Kemu Valetini, Epeli Momo, Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula, Simi Kuruvoli, Elia Canakaivata, Kitione Salawa, Etonia Waqa,  Isoa Nasilasila, Mesake Vocevoce, Mesake Doge, Tevita Ikanivere (c),  Jone Koroiduadua.             

Reserves: Zuriel Togiatama, Emosi Tuqiri, Samu Tawake, Leone Rotuisolia, Vilive Miramira, Peni Matawalu, Caleb Muntz, Taniela Rakuro.