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Bittersweet relief for Highlanders

Getty Images     20 Jun 2013     Getty Images

Five players who have been sidelined with long-term injuries have been named in the Highlanders to play a Southland XV in Dunedin on Friday night as preparation for the match against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday week.

They are hooker Brayden Mitchell [broken collarbone], flanker Hugh Blake [shoulder], first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga [ankle] and wings Kade Poki [ribs] and Buxton Popoali'i [foot].

Midfielders Shaun Treeby [hamstring] and Tamati Ellison [shoulder surgery], who have missed much of the season, are now fully fit and will continue their partnership on Friday night.

And All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock, who have battled through the campaign with knee and hamstring problems, are over their injuries with Nonu making an impressive return to the All Blacks.

They seem set to reinforce the Highlanders against the Crusaders along with fellow All Blacks Aaron and Ben Smith and captain Andrew Hore.

Halfback Fumiaki Tanaka is at present playing for Japan in the Pacific Cup but he should be available on Saturday week, as should three-quarter Jason Emery after the surprise elimination of the New Zealand under-20 team from the IRB Junior World Championship in France on Wednesday.

The three remaining casualties are No 8 Nasi Manu, prop Chris King and midfielder Phil Burleigh, who are all out for the remainder of the season. Manu has a foot injury, King is recovering from torn pectoral muscles and Burleigh from shoulder surgery.

Veteran Brad Thorn will captain the Highlanders on Friday night and, with Aaron Smith and Tanaka unavailable, first five-eighth Colin Slade will play outside Frae Wilson.

Evergreen Jason Rutledge will captain the Southland selection which includes current Highlanders forwards Jamie Mackintosh, Josh Bekhuis, John Hardie and Elliot Dixon while Blues utility Marty McKenzie is in the reserves.

The June test window has been a mixed blessing for the Highlanders, who had gained some momentum after their impressive 38-28 win over the Blues on June 1.

"We want to perform well in our last three games and that will start by playing well against the Crusaders," head coach Jamie Joseph said.

"There have been some tough battles over the past few years. We've beaten them once a year for the last couple of years and that is something to aim for."

The Highlanders' remaining games after the Crusaders are away matches against the Hurricanes [July 6] and the Melbourne Rebels [July 12].