Aaron Smith says the return of co-captain Nasi Manu is just what the Highlanders needed heading into the pressure cooker of their Super Rugby qualifying final against the Chiefs.
Manu is one of three players returning from injuries to earn a recall on Saturday for the first play-off game the Highlanders have hosted since 1999.
All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa (groin) and lock Mark Reddish (hand) are also back but it is ball-carrying No.8 Manu’s presence after four weeks sidelined by a shoulder problem which provides a boost that halfback Smith finds hard to quantify.
“He’s a real spiritual leader for us,” Smith told NZ Newswire.
“Just having another captain out there. He does a lot of key talking to the big boys especially.
“We’ve got a lot of leaders in the backs but when Nasi’s in there, we obviously have a lot more leadership up front. He sets the mood with the way he plays, he’s a pretty easy man to follow.”
The robust Manu, a nephew of former Wallaby Daniel Manu, is one of the unluckier domestic players not to play Test rugby.
The 26-year-old could have possibly played in last week’s 44-7 thrashing of the Blues in Auckland but he was deliberately saved for the Dunedin knockout fixture.
His return results in Dan Pryor shifting from No.8 to the openside flank in place of the injured John Hardie.
Fekitoa’s comeback after two missed games also causes a shuffle. Richard Buckman shifts in one position to inside centre, with Shaun Treeby making way.
Reddish pushes rookie lock Joe Latta to the reserves bench despite a strong display at Eden Park.
The fourth starting change from last week is at loosehead prop, where Brendon Edmonds demotes Daniel Lienert-Brown to the bench.
Outstanding All Blacks No.9 Smith says the Highlanders’ strong finish to the season in the face of injury issues is testament to the depth developed by the southerners.
“We’ve been able to trust our squad, whereas over the last few years we’ve always been a little bit weak with our depth. That’s come a long way.”
Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-capt), Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-capt), Dan Pryor, Elliot Dixon, Mark Reddish, Alex Ainley, Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman, Brendon Edmonds. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Ross Geldenhuys, Joe Latta, Gareth Evans, Fumiaki Tanaka, Marty Banks, Shaun Treeby.