Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders 'hopeful' wing Jona Nareki can face Hurricanes

Highlanders wing Jona Nareki still has to get through a training session on Wednesday before he is confirmed to face the Hurricanes, but Tony Brown has already ruled out Solomon Alaimalo or Nehe Milner-Skudder as potential replacements.
The Highlanders have made numerous changes for the crucial game against the 0-3 Hurricanes in Dunedin on Friday, shifting Josh Ioane to fullback and reinstating Mitch Hunt at No 10.

Highlanders
Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith says plans are already in place for him to make it through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Jona Nareki retained the No 11 jersey despite picking up a painful hip injury against the Blues, but Brown admitted he had to tick off a few more boxes before running out at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

We've just got get Jona through training today and hopefully he's good to go, Brown said on Wednesday.


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The Highlanders willingness to give Nareki as much time as possible emphasises how important he has become to the side, but if he isn't right for Friday it wouldn't surprise to see Connor Garden-Bachop slip into the starting XV.

Brown said neither Alaimalo nor Milner-Skudder were in the selection picture for the Hurricanes game, with Alaimalo unwell and a few weeks away from playing.

He's still a few weeks off coming back in and being at his best, Brown said. He's actually a bit unwell at the moment, so we're not able to select him.


Milner-Skudder's shoulder issues have been well documented. He played 40 minutes for the Highlanders against the Hurricanes in the last preseason fixture in Alexandra, something in an achievement in itself given the brutal nature of the modern game.

Nehe has come off a horrific shoulder operation, Brown said.

He's not far away but still not quite there around being able to play Super.

It's more of a case of game time. He just needs a lot more game time and then once he gets confidence in his shoulder and the contact area, then he comes into the selection conversation.

Joe Allison/Getty Images
Off-season recruit Solomon Alaimalo is unavailable for selection.

That has opened the door for debutant Freedom Vahaakolo, who moved to Dunedin from Auckland last year to play club rugby and chase a Super Rugby contract.

At that time Vahaakolo didn't even have a contract with Otago, so the powerful 23-year-old has made significant progress in a short period of time.

It's an exciting opportunity for him, Brown said. He's come down south for an opportunity to play professional rugby and he's made a pretty good fist of it so far.

I think it's time for him to show everyone what he's got.

James Allan/Getty Images
Nehe Milner-Skudder is tackled during the Super Rugby Aotearoa pre-season match game against the Hurricanes.

At almost 100kg and with a low centre of gravity, Vahaakolo has a different physical profile to the Highlanders outside backs and he showed during the preseason that he is a hard man to tackle.

He's a power athlete, Brown said. We've got some speed out wide but we don't have a lot of power.

We're hoping that he's going to give us that physicality. He's got plenty of X factor. Hopefully well see it on Friday night.

Brown has also added some much-needed beef to his pack, recalling lock Pari Pari Parkinson and loosehead prop Ayden Johnstone.

James Allan/Getty Images
Wing Freedom Vahaakolo wasn't named in the full Highlanders squad but his X factor has impressed Tony Brown.

There will also be a debut for Japanese test star Kazuki Himeno, and Brown wasn't afraid to set some lofty expectations for the loose forward.

He's been loving being in the environment and the boys have been loving his energy, Brown said.

We're looking forward to him making a huge impact on New Zealand rugby.

The returns of Parkinson and Johnstone will be critical after the Highlanders were bullied out of the game at Eden Park in round three.

Johnstone hasn't played since suffering a head knock in the North v South match last year, and the Highlanders have missed his all-round contribution.

Joe Allison/Getty Images
Japanese loose forward: Kazuki Himeno prepares to take contact at a Highlanders training session.

Hes also grown into a leadership role around the team, said Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody.

So, it's not only his onfield, set-piece stuff and his rugby game, he's grown into a bit of a voice around the team as well.

So, it's great to have him back.

The Hurricanes are winless after three games but showed for 50 minutes against the Chiefs in Wellington last weekend that they possess some game breakers in the backline.

You prepare for their best game at all times, Dermody said.

Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Highlanders lock Pari Pari Parkinson will play his first game in eight months after an ankle reconstruction.

We know the attacking threats they've got. They started using their set-piece a bit more against the Chiefs.

They are a threatening team if we allow them space and time. They can punish you pretty quickly.

The game will be Aaron Smiths 154th appearance for the Highlanders, meaning he will overtake Ben Smith to become the most-capped Highlander of all time.

Highlanders: Josh Ioane, Freedom Vahaakolo, Michael Collins, Sio Tomkinson, Jona Nareki, Mitch Hunt, Aaron Smith (cc), Marino Mikaele-Tuu, Billy Harmon, Shannon Frizell, Pari Pari Parkinson, Bryn Evans, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (cc), Ethan de Groot.

Reserves: Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone, Josh Hohneck, Josh Dickson, Kazuki Himeno, Folau Fakatava, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Connor Garden-Bachop.

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