16 Mar 2017

Highlanders boosted by Ben Smith's return

12:43 pm on 16 March 2017

All Black fullback Ben Smith returns from concussion for the Highlanders Super Rugby clash with the champion Hurricanes in Wellington this weekend.

Ben Smith gets medical attention during the Highlanders match against the Chiefs.

Ben Smith gets medical attention during the Highlanders match against the Chiefs. Photo: Photosport

Smith missed the last two games after suffering a head knock in the opening round loss to the Chiefs.

The Highlanders' fullback and captain Ben Smith scores a try.

The Highlanders' fullback and captain Ben Smith scores a try. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Smith's return to the field will be welcomed by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who has watched on as a series of contenders for the British and Irish Lions tour in June have been injured in the early rounds of the season.

Both the Crusaders Israel Dagg (knee) and Hurricanes Nehe Milner-Skudder (foot), who like Smith can play fullback or on the wing, have been ruled out for up to six weeks, putting their returns around late April.

All Black wing Waisake Naholo and All Black first-five Lima Sopoaga have also been ruled out indefinitely for the Highlanders after suffering hamstring injuries.

Ben is one of three Smith's in the Highlanders line-up for Saturday night's clash, with All Black Aaron Smith at halfback and rookie Fletcher Smith at first-five.

"Fletcher has trained well and showed some good form preseason he's a young player with a lot of potential and we back him to do the job for the team on Saturday" said head coach Tony Brown.

Young Otago openside Dillon Hunt, who debuted off the bench last week, will get his chance to start as Elliot Dixon shifts to blindside and Gareth Evans moves to the bench.

Joe Wheeler will start in place of the injured Alex Ainley and Richard Buckman moves to the right wing to replace the injured Naholo.

Matt Faddes comes into the reserves as the Highlanders go with a conventional five forwards three backs combination this week.

The defending champion Hurricanes have made three changes with Manawatu loose forward Callum Gibbins to start at openside.

Gibbins' first start of the season means All Black Ardie Savea will play at No.8 with Reed Prinsep moving to the reserves, while loose head prop Chris Eves and fullback Jordie Barrett come into the run-on side for the injured Loni Uhila and All Black Milner-Skudder respectively.

Uhila (calf) and Milner-Skudder (fractured foot) were both injured during last weekend's 26-18 loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton.

There are four further changes in the Hurricanes reserves.

Lock Sam Lousi and halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi come into the match day 23 for the first time this season, while utility back Wes Goosen and prop Mike Kainga return to the fold after missing the cut against the Chiefs.

Lousi, who is set to make his Hurricanes debut, adds his considerable size at the expense of James Blackwell, while Tahuriorangi takes Chris Smylie's place as TJ Perenara's back up.

Goosen provides outside back cover as he did against the Sunwolves in Tokyo, while Kainga returns to the impact role he filled during the opening two rounds of the season.

The bench also features prop Ben May, who will make his 50th appearance for the Hurricanes should he take the field against the Highlanders.

The Hurricanes are fourth in the standings with 10 points while the Highlanders 13th with five points.