Highlanders to unleash new blood in Queenstown

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Head coach Clarke Dermody said, "We've named 15 players who will get an opportunity on Friday night to prove themselves and another 15 who will try to do the same thing when they get their chance.

"This is an opportunity for us to put into action the changes to our game from 2023, see how new combinations work and how the pre-season hard work translates on the field for each player."

The Highlanders have been acclimatising in Central Otago this week in preparation for the game.

Former Wales international Rhys Patchell will debut for the side at first five-eighths, with former Blues outside back Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens starting at fullback.

Other newcomers include hooker Henry Bell, who has been playing in the United States; Southland second five-eighths Matt Whaanga and his brother Josh, who impressed with Otago in the NPC last year, on the wing, former Blues centre Tanielu Tele'a, former Hurricanes wing Jonah Lowe, former Wellington lock Hugo Plummer, former Chiefs prop Solomone Tukuafu and Southland midfield back Tevita Latu and flanker Blair Ryall.

Matt Whaanga said, "First and foremost, I'm stoked to be here, but I'm also stoked to have the chance to play alongside my brother. It's a great opportunity for both of us."

Moana Pasifika coach Tana Umaga will have his first outing with the side in a preview of their opening Super Rugby Pacific game at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 24.

With 20 new players in their squad, Umaga said, "It will be a good opportunity to go through new combinations and have a hit out, and with a lot of fresh faces in the team this year, we want to give everyone available the chance to have a run.

"We've been training against each other for a while now, so it will be good to play against someone different for a chance and see where we're at and where we can get better.

Having missed all of the 2023 season, former Australia and New Zealand age-group prop Sekope Kepu will make his return from an Achilles injury in the game.

With 110 Test caps for Australia and 141 Super Rugby games for the Waratahs, his experience has been central to the Moana Pasifika team since its formation.

Umaga said, "We're looking forward to having Sekope back. He's an integral part of this club and a veteran of our game. He's worked hard to get back on the field, and I'm sure he's keen to get back out there again."

Former All Blacks and Hurricanes wing Julian Savea will mark his debut for the side with a share of captaincy duties during one of the quarters.


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