Try supremo Naholo primed to return against Chiefs

Try-scoring machine Waisake Naholo is poised to return to the Otago Highlanders to spice up this weekend’s showdown when Super Rugby’s defending champions take on this year’s pace-setters Waikato Chiefs.

The Canterbury Crusaders, meanwhile, will be chasing a bonus point win over the Queensland Reds, who have axed Japanese star fullback Ayumu Goromaru from their 23-man squad, as they continue to close in on the Chiefs.

In South Africa, the Sharks and Bulls are poised to pounce on their conference leaderships.

As the tournament goes into round 11 of the 17-round regular season, Naholo has been pencilled in by the Highlanders for his first run since he was injured in the opening game against the Auckland Blues at the end of February.

The All Blacks wing, Super Rugby’s top try-scorer last year with 13, injured the same leg that saw him capture world headlines last year when he used a traditional herbal treatment to cure a fracture before the World Cup.

Without him this year the Highlanders have still fashioned an impressive six wins from nine matches to lie fourth in the tightly-packed New Zealand conference.

The Chiefs have won eight of nine but have been off the boil in recent weeks.

While they will not welcome facing a rampant Naholo on the wing, Highlanders assistant coach Tony Brown is excited by the prospect.

“He seems to be in pretty good shape and is confident he can get out there,” Brown said.

“It will be exciting for us to get him back.”

Keeping Naholo fuelled with possession will be the task of scrum-half Aaron Smith who will himself be pressured by the Chiefs’ Brad Weber who is rapidly forging a claim to be recognised as the All Blacks next number nine.

– ‘Fantastic challenge’ –

The Hurricanes, looking to back up last week’s 50-17 thumping of Africa 2 conference leaders Golden Lions, have plenty of inside knowledge when they play the Sharks in Durban.

Coach Chris Boyd and assistant John Plumtree have both been involved with the Sharks, with Plumtree sacked as the Durban side’s head coach three years ago.

A win for the Sharks, after they narrowly lost to the Chiefs 24-22 in New Zealand last week, will see them draw level in their conference with the Lions who have a bye.

Africa 1 conference leaders Western Stormers also sit out this week, giving the Northern Bulls every chance to overtake them when they play the ACT Brumbies in Canberra.

The Bulls have kept the same side that beat the Western Force last week to move to one point behind the Stormers, while the Brumbies are looking to arrest a two-match losing streak after going down to the Highlanders and Crusaders.

If the Bulls win in Canberra on Friday then the NSW Waratahs will fancy their chances of moving top of the Australia conference when they play the Central Cheetahs in Sydney on Saturday.

The Waratahs go into the weekend equal on points with the Brumbies and only two behind the Melbourne Rebels who have a bye.

The Crusaders, five points behind the Chiefs but with a game in hand, start a three-week period without suspended wing Nemani Nadolo when they host the Reds.

“To play any of the Kiwi teams is always a step up in intensity but the Crusaders in Christchurch is a fantastic challenge for the group and will give us a fair indication of how much progress we’ve made,” said Reds co-coach Matt O’Conner.

Johnny McNicholl comes in for Nadolo in one of five changes to the Crusaders who are giving fringe players a run but have an insurance policy on the bench where there are five All Blacks.

In the remaining matches, the Sunwolves are at home in Tokyo against the Western Force with both sides looking for their second win, while the Auckland Blues host the Southern Kings.


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