Aaron Smith returns as Highlanders look to secure Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final spot

Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith as returned to the franchise’s starting lineup ahead of their must-win clash against the Brumbies in Canberra this weekend.

With a place in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final on the line, the Highlanders have left no stone unturned as they have named a full-strength side to take on the Super Rugby AU runners-up at GIO Stadium on Friday.

In doing so, interim head coach Clarke Dermody has reinstated Smith into the No 9 jersey after the seasoned veteran was rested during last week’s 59-23 thumping of the Waratahs in Dunedin.

The 32-year-old takes the place of Kayne Hammington, who is demoted to the bench after celebrating his 50th appearance for the Highlanders against the Waratahs.

That alteration is one of only two changes made to the starting lineup, with the other coming in the loose forwards as Hugh Renton has been named at blindside flanker in place of ex-captain James Lentjes, who has dropped to the bench.

Hammington and Lentjes are two of three new faces in the reserves, with loosehead prop Ayden Johnstone the only other newbie on the pine as he swaps in for Daniel Lienert-Brown.

The Highlanders currently sit in second place heading into the final round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman but are level on competition points with the third-placed Crusaders.

Having beaten their opponents by an aggregate margin of 11 points more than the Crusaders thus far in the competition, the Highlanders hold a slight advantage over their South Island rivals, who will square off against the Rebels in Sydney on Saturday.

That leaves Dermody’s side within touching distance of what would be their first final since their maiden title-winning season six years ago.

However, a bonus point win against the Brumbies in the Australian capital – which is no easy task, as was exemplified when they dispatched the Hurricanes in front of their home fans last week – will be crucial to cementing their place in the final.

Even then, the Highlanders will be relying on the Crusaders to not usurp their slender points differential lead against the Rebels, but time will only tell if the Dunedin-based franchise have done enough to feature in next Saturday’s final.