The Highlanders will be without the services of lynchpin Ben Smith for their pivotal Super Rugby clash with the Waratahs on Friday.
Despite strong suggestions from Tuesday's training that he'd make his comeback from injury in Invercargill, the All Blacks star's troublesome hamstring hasn't sufficiently recovered to take the field.
The Highlanders need to earn a bonus point win and hope other results go their way to advance to the Super Rugby playoffs, meaning the France-bound Smith may well have played his last game in blue and gold.
The 33-year-old hasn't featured for the southerners since Week 12 when he was forced from the field during the draw with the Chiefs.
He practiced without restrictions on Tuesday, but coach Aaron Mauger has confirmed that, despite Smith's best efforts, he wasn't quite yet up to speed.
"Ben worked extremely hard to be available for his team this week," said Mauger. "Unfortunately he is still a little short of being match ready."
Josh McKay will again step in to claim the number 15 jersey.
Meanwhile, a milestone looms for All Blacks hooker Liam Coltman, who will bring up his 100th game for the franchise.
The four-test international made his debut for the Dunedin-based franchise back in 2013, and was recently voted their Player of the Year for 2019.
In the one change to the starting lineup, Teihorangi Walden slots back into second-five to pair with the in-from Rob Thompson, while Daniel Lienert-Brown and Elliot Dixon return to make their impact off the bench.
The Waratahs will be without key players Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Rob Simmons and Sekope Kepu, who will be taking their final Wallabies rest week.
Highlanders: 1-Ayden Johnstone, 2-Liam Coltman, 3-Tyrel Lomax, 4-Jackson Hemopo, 5-Tom Franklin, 6-Liam Squire, 7-James Lentjes, 8-Luke Whitelock (c), 9-Aaron Smith, 10-Josh Ioane, 11-Tevita Li, 12- Teihorangi Walden, 13-Rob Thompson, 14-Waisake Naholo, 15-Josh McKay
Reserves: 16-Ash Dixon, 17- Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18-Siate Tokolahi, 19-Josh Dickson, 20-Shannon Frizell, 21-Kayne Hammington, 22-Marty Banks, 23- Elliot Dixon
Join us for live updates of Highlanders v Waratahs from 7pm Friday