The defending champion Highlanders have been boosted by the return of explosive wing Waisake Naholo for their highly-anticipated clash with Super Rugby leaders the Chiefs.
Naholo, who scored a tournament-high 13 tries last year, fractured his right leg in the Highlanders’ opening-round defeat to the Blues in late February.
It was another injury to the same leg last year that had threatened his hopes of selection for the All Blacks’ World Cup squad.
Naholo confirmed his readiness to make his comeback against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday night with a three-try performance in Dunedin club rugby last weekend.
His inclusion in place of Jack Wilson is one of four changes that coach Jamie Joseph has made to his starting 15.
Rob Thompson’s unavailability because of a head knock means utility Matt Faddes, who has been used on the wing, comes into the midfield.
The two other changes have been also been forced by injury, with No.8 Liam Squire (hip) and openside flanker and co-captain Shane Christie (hamstring) both sidelined.
Luke Whitelock and Dan Pryor are the respective replacements.
On the bench, first five-eighth Marty Banks’ return from a rib complaint is timely one, after Hayden Parker’s season-ending knee injury at training last week.
The Highlanders got back to winning ways last weekend by downing the Brumbies in Invercargill to remain in the fifth and last play-off spot in the Australasian group.
The Chiefs kept their place at the top of the overall ladder by edging past the Sharks for their seventh victory in a row.
Highlanders: Ben Smith (capt), Waisake Naholo, Matt Faddes, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dan Pryor, Elliot Dixon, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Josh Hohneck, Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Res: Greg Pleasants-Tate, Aki Seiuli, Siosiua Halanukonuka, James Lentjes, Gareth Evans, Fumiaki Tanaka, Marty Banks, Teihorangi Walden.