Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is hoping his bold move pays off, as Super Rugby’s defending champions head in the second and final match of a long-haul road trip.
After their 48-18 win over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, the Highlanders have made widespread changes to their line-up to face the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Sunday morning (NZT).
They welcome back the five All Blacks who sat out against the Kings – co-captain and fullback Ben Smith, wing Waisake Naholo, centre Malakai Fekitoa, halfback Aaron Smith and loose forward Elliot Dixon.
Meanwhile, brilliant outside back Matt Faddes, who scored a hat-trick last weekend and is the side’s leading try-scorer in 2016, goes to the bench.
Joseph knows that critics questioned the decision to leave the Test quintet behind in New Zealand at a crucial time of the campaign.
He says it’s about trusting the whole squad’s ability as the All Blacks contingent took some needed rest.
“In terms of our team and what our ultimate goals are towards the end of the season, it’s important they had a breather,” he said.
“I hope it’s paid off. We’ve got those five points behind us we’ve got a real fresh bunch of boys.”
Two of the Highlanders’ All Blacks did take the field against the Kings – first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga, who started, and loose forward Liam Squire, who came off the bench.
However, Squire suffered a head knock and is among one of four players, including co-skipper Shane Christie, who have headed home.
Christie didn’t come out for the second half against the Kings after feeling unwell and his absence meant James Lentjes has been handed the No.7 jersey for his first start of the year.
Joseph said Lentjes had been knocking on the door all season.
“We’re coming up against a very physical pack, a very big pack, and I just think this opposition suits the style of footy player that James is,” he said.
With two matches remaining, the Highlanders are sitting in the fifth and last play-off spot in the Australasian group.
Competition rookies the Jaguares are out of finals contention, but scored a moral-boosting third win of the season last weekend by beating the Bulls 29-11.