Highlanders at full strength for quarterfinal

Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava is back against the Brumbies on Saturday. Photo: Peter...
Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava is back against the Brumbies on Saturday. Photo: Peter McIntosh
All a coach really wants the week of a playoff game is to have everyone on deck.

Clarke Dermody effectively has that luxury, and he has named his strongest possible squad as the Highlanders face the daunting task of heading to Canberra in the hope of upsetting the Brumbies in the Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinals on Saturday night.

Dermody has made nine changes to the rather second-string team that finished the regular season with a 41-14 loss to the Hurricanes.

Coach Clarke Dermody. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Coach Clarke Dermody. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Folau Fakatava and Cameron Millar are back to take the reigns of the backline, Tanielu Tele’a makes his comeback from a knee injury at centre, and Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens return to the back three.

In the forwards, Mitch Dunshea replaces Will Tucker at lock and the loose trio is rejigged with Billy Harmon moving to No 8, Sean Withy returning to the starting lineup at openside, and Oliver Haig replacing Max Hicks on the blindside.

With the exception of injured Welsh first five Rhys Patchell - whose departure was followed by a series of grand displays from young playmaker Millar - Dermody has the benefit of calling on all his best players, many of whom got a rest or limited minutes last week to refresh.

‘‘I think the benefit of qualifying when we did allowed us not to have to rush those guys back last week against the Hurricanes, so they’ve had another week to be ready.

‘‘We’re happy with the team we’ve picked. We’ve left out some good players as well.’’

Tele’a has done particularly well to return after copping a nasty blow to the knee against the Blues on May 18.

The Highlanders have certainly had more luck with injuries this year than last, though Dermody also highlighted the work done by new trainer James Holden.

‘‘We definitely changed our preseason this year, and it allowed us to start the season in good shape.

‘‘We’ve changed the way we train, and I think we’ve got more resilient players.’’

Tanielu Tele'a returns after injury. Photo: Getty Images
Tanielu Tele'a returns after injury. Photo: Getty Images
The Highlanders missed the playoffs last year and were one-and-done in 2023 - and they are stacked with youngsters - so there is not a lot of playoff experience in the squad.

There will be a lift in intensity regardless around the camp as the sudden-death game approaches.

‘‘I think there’s always a lift at this time of year,’’ Dermody said.

‘‘Your leaders really stand up. Your best players start to come to the front. We’re lucky that’s been happening in the last five or six weeks for us.

‘‘There’s been a really noticeable change in the team.’’

Highlanders to play Brumbies
GIO Stadium, Canberra
Saturday, at 9.35pm (NZ time)

Team: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Tanielu Tele’a, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Cameron Millar, 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, Jake Te Hiwi, Finn Hurley.