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Highlanders Gear Up for Front Row Battle Against Blues

Highlanders Gear Up for Front Row Battle Against Blues

All BlacksFebruary 29, 2024

An early season contest for control up front shapes as the Highlanders prepare to take on the Blues in DHL Super Rugby Pacific in Melbourne on Friday.

Coach Clarke Dermody has beefed up his front row in anticipation of the scrum contest with prop Ethan de Groot, making his first start in partnership with Jermaine Ainsley. Max Hicks will start at lock for Fabian Holland.

Dermody said there were some issues with how the scrum performed against Moana Pasifika in their opening game, and the Blues would be a challenge for the scrum.

However, both loosehead props performed well, which has put some pressure on de Groot.

"It is up to him to show us what he can do. We know how he can play and we're looking forward to seeing him go."

After his pre-season game against the Crusaders, they felt he was a little behind the other props, but he had a big week last week and had trained well this week ahead of the Melbourne visit.

Up against a big Blues pack, scrummaging would be a challenge for the side.

"It will be a good battle for us, but it is one the boys are up for."

Dermody wasn't looking at the past. He was more concerned with the future.

"We feel like this is a new team this year. We've had a big turnover of players, so we don't get dragged down by what's happened, we're looking forward. We're excited by the group we've got and it's going to be a good taste of where we are at this week."

Holland was being managed after taking some knocks last week, reflecting the coaches' desire to manage the locking load. Hicks deserved a start as he was one of the better performers in the pre-season.

First five-eighths Rhys Patchell will have Ajay Faleafaga as his back-up with Cam Millar getting time with the Bravehearts.

"That will be good for his development and give Ajay a chance to show us what he can do. He has a different game to the other two, so we want to see what that looks like coming off the bench.

"We feel like his point of difference is his running game, and we will look to implement that, hopefully later in the game."

Captain Billy Harmon said having some continuity among the loose forwards was good.

"Across the team everyone's putting their hands up and Derms has the mindset that he wants the best team he can have out there, so it gives the boys the chance to find that continuity and keep growing."

They know the X-factor in the Blues' lineup, but they had to back their game and structure and be disciplined.

Harmon was also aware the Highlanders have some attacking quality, as witnessed with two of their tries last weekend, especially that initiated by flanker Sean Withy and scored by second five-eighths Sam Gilbert.

"That was some exciting footy. To have a forward doing that and then having our backs backing it up with some razzle-dazzle is pretty awesome.


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