Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger says All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo is “looking really sharp” before his return via the bench against the Lions in Johannesburg on Sunday (NZ time).

Naholo hasn’t played since the Blues game in round six but now gets the chance to push his All Blacks case with four games remaining in the Highlanders’ regular season.

“He’s been really working really hard,” Mauger said from Johannesburg.

“Credit to our medical staff and the strength and conditioning staff.

“With all our guys who have suffered injuries through the year they’ve done a fantastic job of getting them back on the track.

“And also credit to Waisake, he’s really committed to that plan and got himself in good nick.”

Naholo’s return for the Highlanders couldn’t come at a better time as injuries have decimated their stocks in the outside backs.

Ben Smith, Tevita Li, Tevita Nabura and Richard Buckman are all unavailable and that means starts on the wings for midfielder Sio Tomkinson and Jordan Hyland, who wasn’t part of the Highlanders squad at the start of the season.

However, much of the focus will be on the return of Naholo.

The All Blacks wing suffered a difficult start to the season and was out of form before he suffered a knee injury in training following the Blues game at Eden Park.

In his absence Crusaders wings Sevu Reece and George Bridge have impressed for the champions, putting Naholo’s All Blacks spot under pressure.

Naholo recently announced this season will be his last for the Highlanders and he will take up a deal with London Irish following the Rugby World Cup.

But he has a key role to play this weekend as the Highlanders target a strong finish at altitude and Mauger paid tribute to the Fijian-born wing’s diligence during the rehab process.

“Our expectation of every player is that they are good professionals,” Mauger said.

“We’re pretty confident we’ve got 39 in them in our squad.

“And the medical staff and S+C staff are important because they provide the plans for our guys to stick to and really believe in, and if you talk to our boys they have a lot of trust in our staff and the plans they put in place.”  .

There is also an interesting switch at No 8, where Shannon Frizell gets a chance at the back of the scrum after his second All Blacks rest week against the Jaguares.

Captain Luke Whitelock holds on to the No 6 jersey as Elliot Dixon misses out on the 23 altogether.

“We’re pretty confident we’ve got 39 in them in our squad.

“And the medical staff and S+C staff are important because they provide the plans for our guys to stick to and really believe in, and if you talk to our boys they have a lot of trust in our staff and the plans they put in place.”  .

There is also an interesting switch at No 8, where Shannon Frizell gets a chance at the back of the scrum after his second All Blacks rest week against the Jaguares.

Captain Luke Whitelock holds on to the No 6 jersey as Elliot Dixon misses out on the 23 altogether.

The experienced Teihorangi Walden returns to the midfield to renew his partnership with Rob Thompson, while All Black Tyrel Lomax returns to the tighthead position for what will be a stern examination against the Lions scrum, led by Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx.

Mauger revealed the Highlanders forwards had enjoyed a “tasty” scrum session in Johannesburg to counter that threat and the Highlanders were looking forward to using the ball on a hard track with conditions forecast to be good for the afternoon kickoff.

The Highlanders are third in the New Zealand conference but have just three competition points more than the Lions, having played a game more.

The game kicks off at 1.05am on Sunday, NZ time

 

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