While Folau Fakatava will make his return to the field for the Highlanders this weekend in their pre-season hit-out with Moana Pasifika, don’t expect to see Aaron Smith doing the same anytime soon.
Fakatava was a late withdrawal from the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour last season after damaging his ACL. Fakatava opted to rehab the injury, however, instead of getting surgery, and will now make his first appearance on the park when he dons the No 9 jersey for the Highlanders in their second and final pre-season fixture.
“He won’t play full minutes, it’s obviously the first game back for a while for him,” coach Clarke Dermody told media on Wednesday. “He’s progressed through full contact training.
“He’s played a full part in training the last two weeks, so he’s looking forward to getting back out there.”
The return is on schedule with Dermody’s suggested timeframe from earlier in the pre-season, with Fakatava now in a strong position to make a push for a spot on the plane to France later in the year.
“He’s been working really hard and diligently with our medical team, the All Blacks medical staff as well,” Dermody previously said.
“He’s giving himself every opportunity to try and make that World Cup (squad), so we’re looking forward to seeing him back out there, and hopefully he can get through the full season.”
While the Highlanders will have the services of one All Blacks halfback to call upon for the opening matches of the Super Rugby Pacific season, however, they’ll have to manage without another.
Test centurion Aaron Smith won’t feature against either the Blues or the Crusaders, instead making his return against the Chiefs in Round 3 of the competition.
“Obviously, he had a massive year last year for us minutes-wise and for the All Blacks on tour as well,” Dermody said of the 34-year-old.
“So, we’re making sure we are in a position to get the best out of him for us coming into the season.”
2023 will mark Smith’s last year in a Highlanders jersey, with the bullet passer set to depart NZ’s shores and head to Japan where he’ll link up with Toyota Verblitz.