Rest and rotation headscratchers hit Super Rugby

10:09 am on 10 March 2023
Highlanders Manaaki Selby-Rickit scores a try against the Hurricanes

The Hurricanes v the Highlanders in October 2022 - but Ardie Savea (centre) is out of this weekend's match due to a one match ban. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Opinion - Both the Hurricanes and Highlanders are going into this weekend without their captains. The former for reasons that have dominated headlines for the past week, the latter for ones that are far harder to understand.

Ardie Savea was handed a one match ban for his now-infamous throat slit gesture to Ryan Louwrens, creating an unlikely sort of tension between the Hurricanes and Melbourne Rebels, of course that now means they are short-handed heading into this weekend's most intriguing game against an actual proper historical rival. Their showdown at Sky Stadium on Saturday night sees the home team coming off two good wins and the Blues still wondering where it all went wrong in their shock loss to the Brumbies.

So, his absence sees boom rookie Peter Lakai come into the spotlight. After a massive provincial season for Wellington last year, there are high hopes that he'll be able to shoulder the rather large workload Savea will leave behind when he goes on his Japanese sojourn in 2024. Lakai's been chucked the keys a bit earlier than expected thanks to Savea's suspension, against a very strong Blues loose forward trio all with points to prove to the All Black selectors.

Ardie Savea made a throat-slitting gesture towards a Melbourne Rebels halfback on Friday.

Ardie Savea's throat-slitting gesture towards a Melbourne Rebels halfback lead to his one match ban. Photo: Screenshot / Sky Sport

Meanwhile, things don't get any easier for the Highlanders, who have lost both of their games so far this season by a combined 112-35. They're facing the Chiefs, who have beaten the Crusaders and Moana Pasifika, and looked very slick doing so. Oh, and the game is at FMG Stadium Waikato, a venue the Chiefs have cracked a half-century at twice in their last five games.

Highlanders captain Billy Harmon won't be there, for reasons best known to NZ Rugby and the NZRPA he's sitting out the week even though his side needs him more than ever. The flanker was called into the All Blacks' touring squad late last year, and despite not even making the bench, is now part of the team's rest policy that means he can't play more than six games in a row. Even more ridiculous is that Savea's one-match ban doesn't count towards his stand down periods, so the Canes will have to find some other way of fitting that in throughout the season.

The fact that the best players would be dipping in and out of the competition was something that we've all had to get used to since 2007, but this is completely taking the piss. Already this year we've had the All Black coaching narrative tread all over what is shaping up to be a pretty intriguing second year of Super Rugby Pacific, now the likes of Harmon are getting needlessly sidelined, presumably to lock themselves in a room at home and concentrate their thoughts on a World Cup campaign they only have a marginal chance of being a part of.

Billy Harmon of the Highlanders and Hugh Renton of the Highlanders celebrates winning the Super Rugby Aotearoa rugby match, Crusaders V Highlanders, at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2nd April 2021.

Billy Harmon (left, with Hugh Renton) was this week omitted from the Highlanders as part of the mandated rest policy. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2021

For the likes of Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and other tight forwards, the rest and rotation policy is at best a necessary evil, given that some of them do really need to save their legs for later in the year. It just seems a little unfair on the Highlanders when they've already got the deck stacked against them - they've had perhaps the most difficult draw to start the season and have by far the least All Blacks out of any New Zealand side barring Moana Pasifika.

They do get Aaron Smith, Shannon Frizell and Ethan de Groot back this weekend though, which will change the complexion of the team quite a bit. By contrast, the Chiefs have barely altered their side (why would they), with John Ryan and Naitoa Ah Kuoi coming into the tight five.

It's unlikely we'll see any throat-slitting this week, unless all the Hurricanes show some sort of solidarity with their suspended leader by doing it en masse. One thing we will, though: Dane Coles on a mission to humiliate Beauden Barrett yet again, as the two face-off for maybe the last time ever on the Sky Stadium turf where both built their illustrious careers.

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