Highlanders may freshen up side for Rebels game after long trip to Perth

The Highlanders have found a winning formula in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman but may tinker with their lineup for the game against the Rebels in Queenstown on Sunday.

The Highlanders beat the Force 25-15 on Friday to record their first back-to-back wins in two years, but the long trip back from Perth will be a consideration for the coaches as they mull changes to the side to face the struggling Rebels.

“Yeh, potentially,” coach Clarke Dermody said after the Highlanders game on Friday. “We'll obviously do the next couple of days well.

“When we get home we’ll see how everybody’s bodies are and how the boys are feeling.

“It’s a tough comp. The physicality is right up there. The Australians are pretty direct in how they play in contact, on both attack and defence.

“I know the boys are a bit sore in the sheds now.”

Fullback Sam Gilbert is in doubt for the Rebels game after feeling a twinge in his hamstring during the warmup for the Force game, with Josh Ioane likely to retain the No 15 jersey after replacing Gilbert just before kickoff in Perth.

Ngantungane Punivai, an unused reserve in Perth, is an option to start either on the wing or midfield, although Sio Tomkinson and Jona Nareki have brought a mixture of toughness and spark in the wider channels over the past two weeks.

Dermody was reluctant to single out individuals for praise after the Force victory, but he paid tribute to Nareki's overall contribution.

“I thought Jona Nareki was outstanding on the wing,” Dermody said. “It's not only his attack but some of his defensive reads and being able to stop plays with one tackle.

“I know he has been working really hard on that with Shane Christie. That was great.

“It was a big work-on from our game against the Hurricanes, our edge defence, so they’ve made big strides there.”

Selection changes may be likely up front, where Kazuki Himeno will be pushing hard for the No 8 jersey after adding plenty of dynamism off the bench against the Force.

The in-form Billy Harmon, who must be a strong contender to wearing the Māori All Blacks No 7 jersey against Samoa in July, has also had a high workload of late and there might be a temptation to start James Lentjes.

In the tight five, locks Pari Pari Parkinson, Bryn Evans and Josh Dickson are all interchangeable while loosehead Ayden Johnstone is coming off a physical scrum battle against the Force’s Argentine prop Santiago Medrano, a tussle the Waikato man won for the most part.

That gives Dermody options to play with, and he was also pleased with the Highlanders’ ability to bounce back from a slow start in Perth to gradually assert control.

“Our turnover rate was over 30 per cent early in the game,” Dermody said. “We managed to get it back and finish at just over 20 per cent.

“It's still probably a little bit high but we managed to regain a bit of control, which is great.

“That’s a lesson learnt for this team. Sometimes that gets out of control for us when we start making turnovers, so I’m happy with how we dealt with it on the field.”

The Highlanders currently sit fourth on the Super Rugby Trans Tasman ladder after failing to pick up a bonus point against the Force, so will need to win big against the Rebels to keep alive their hopes of making the final.