Fekitoa fit for Brumbies

Highlanders midfielder Malakai Fekitoa has been cleared of concussion and will start in the No 13 jersey against the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday night.

Fekitoa was under concussion protocol after taking a head knock and leaving the field in the first half of his team's 41-15 loss to the Hurricanes last weekend.

However, he and first-five eighth Fletcher Smith, who left the field in the second half after taking a high shot from Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara, have both been declared fit. 

Their availability came as music to the ears of Coach Tony Brown, whose side has been ravaged by injury through the first month of the Super Rugby competition.

"I think they were pretty good after the game and they passed that initial test, so we had full confidence that they would be good to go," Brown said.

He also welcomes back three players - winger Patrick Osborne, prop Siosuia Halanukonuka and hooker Greg Pleasants-Tate - from injury for his team's first non-New Zealand derby this year.

Osborne will start on the left-wing in place of Tevita Li, who has been given the week off, opposite former Otago Boys' High School pupil Patelesio Tomkinson, who will make his Highlanders debut. 

Midfielder Rob Thompson has also been given the week off, meaning Richard Buckman will start next to Fekitoa in the No 12 jersey. 

"The big decision for us was Tevita and Rob Thompson have played in every minute so far and they have had a massive pre-season, as well," Brown said.

"So we just felt they needed a bit of a rest. And we wanted to give Sio [Tomkinson] a bit of an opportunity."

Tomkinson, 20, played 64 straight games for the Otago Boys' First XV from the start of 2011, scoring more than 450 points - which is believed to be a school record.

He was hindered by a niggly groin injury after leaving school but made 16 appearances for Otago in the Mitre 10 Cup the past two seasons. 

While primarily a midfielder, Brown also rates him as a physically imposing winger.

"Sio is probably one of our most physical rugby players," he said. "It's not normally strength for a young guy coming in.

"But that's his strength and he's going to be very punishing defensively, and he's also very physical with carrying the ball."

Halanukonuka and Pleasants-Tate will both come off the bench, while hard-working lock Alex Ainley returns to the startling line-up after a week off. 

Halfback Aaron Smith will play his 99th game for the Highlanders on Saturday night. 

A raft of players, including winger Waisake Naholo, pivot Lima Sopoaga, No 8 Liam Squire, flanker Dan Pryor and co-captain Ash Dixon, are still out injured.

Brown is hopeful Squire will return in the next fortnight, but otherwise the casualty list isn't likely to shorten for another four to six weeks. 

After four New Zealand derbies to start the season, it's the Highlanders' first of consecutive games against Australian opposition, before they host the Blues in the lead up to their first bye. 

The Highlanders are seeking their third consecutive win against the Brumbies, which would match the mark they set between 2001-2003. 

In last year's quarterfinal, the Highlanders survived a late assault on their try-line to pip them 15-9 in Canberra. 

"The Brumbies in Canberra is one of the toughest challenges in rugby and history tells us we don't perform that well there so we will need to be on our game," Brown said.

One win from their opening four games has the Highlanders at the bottom of the New Zealand conference and already lagging well behind the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes.


Highlanders: Ben Smith (c), Patelesio Tomkinson, Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Patrick Osborne, Fletcher Smith, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Elliot Dixon, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Greg Pleasants-Tate, Aki Seiuli, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Joe Wheeler, Gareth Evans, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks, Matt Faddes


Photo: Getty Images/ DAVE ROWLAND (Malakai Fekitoa will start at centre for the Highlanders against the Brumbies).