Lima Sopoaga in doubt

Lima Sopoaga must be wondering who the spiteful soul with the voodoo doll is.

Already sidelined for most the season with a hamstring injury, the Highlanders' first-five eighth is in doubt for Saturday's South Island derby against the Crusaders in Christchurch with a calf injury.

Sopoaga, who has had 45 minutes off the bench the past two weeks, tweaked his calf late in the Highlanders' 44-28 win against the Waratahs in Dunedin last weekend. 

The 26-year-old sat out training on Tuesday, and Highlanders coach Tony Brown has bracketed him on the bench with former Christchurch Boys' High School pivot Fletcher Smith. 

"We didn't want to put [Sopoaga] in the starting side and then pull him out at the end," Brown said.

"If he gets through the captain's run tomorrow, he will stay on the bench and otherwise Fletcher will come into the team."

The injury cloud hanging over the six-cap All Black spared Brown the headache of deciding whether or not to toss Sopoaga into the starting side, or to stick with Marty Banks, who has led the team to a franchise record nine-straight wins. 

But should Sopoaga be scratched on Saturday, more valuable minutes will trickle down the drain.

Minutes he could do with less than a week before All Blacks coach Steve Hansen names his squad for the three-test series against the British and Irish Lions.

Before returning during his team's rout of the Force a fortnight ago in Perth, Sopoaga hadn't played since pinging his hamstring against the Blues on March 11. 

With or without Sopoaga, the Highlanders finally have openside flanker James Lentjes back on deck. 

Lentjes dislocated his elbow in the first minute of the Highlanders' 30-27 loss to the Crusaders in round two, and has been named in the run-on side for the injured Dillon Hunt.

Brown said rookie Hunt would have started the match had it not been for a hip injury, which isn't expected to keep him out beyond this weekend. 

Lentjes' return is timely for the Highlanders, who will try and stall the Crusaders' All Black-laden pack.

"James has got an amazing attitude," Brown said. 

"If you watch James play in previous games, it's always about the physicality and intensity he plays at. He's keen as mustard to get out there and he's not going to change his game."

As crucial as the game is for the Crusaders, who probably need to keep winning to nab the treasured No 1 seed, the match doesn't have huge implications for the Highlanders.

They've already locked up a playoff spot, and Brown isn't about to start sweating on playoff seeding ahead of the international window. 

"We're looking at it as a one-off game and an opportunity to go to Christchurch and beat a pretty good team," Brown said.

"You don't often beat the Crusaders in Christchurch and that's what we're looking at, the challenge of doing that and we'll just see how it goes."

On the back of a string of impressive performances off the bench, Canterbury midfielder Rob Thompson will get a chance to lineup opposite provincial team mate and All Black Ryan Crotty.

His inclusion pushes Richard Buckman to the left-wing in place of the injured Tevita Li (shoulder).

Fullback and co-captain Ben Smith will become the most capped (128) Highlander in franchise history in the match. 


Highlanders: Ben Smith (cc), Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Richard Buckman, Marty Banks, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Gareth Evans, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon (cc), Aki Seiuli, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Joe Wheeler, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Lima Sopoaga/Fletcher Smith, Matt Faddes. 


Photo: DIANNE MANSON/GETTY IMAGES (Highlanders first-five eighth Lima Sopoaga is in doubt for Saturday's derby against the Crusaders).