Super Rugby Pacific: Highlanders hope Aaron Smith return can help snap shocking start to 2023

After a nightmare start to Super Rugby Pacific, the Highlanders are banking on the return of one of their all-time greats to arrest their slide.

In their first two games of 2023, the Highlanders have conceded 60 points to the Blues and 50 points to the Crusaders, results that have seen them plummet to the bottom of the table.

Things won't get any easier for the Highlanders either, with a trip to Hamilton to face the table-topping Chiefs, who've won both of their first two matches with bonus points.

Aaron Smith.
Aaron Smith. Photo credit: Getty Images

Reinforcements are incoming, though. All Blacks duo Ethan de Groot and Shannon Frizell are both back in contention after missing the defeat to the Crusaders.

But the biggest boost comes in the form of veteran halfback Aaron Smith, who could make his first appearance of the season after an extended pre-season break.

For assistant coach Dave Dillon, Smith's return to playing comes after the 34-year-old's contributions already this season, helping mentor the side through their opening defeats.

"They've been putting the work in behind the scenes," said Dillon. "Nuggy [Smith] hasn't been playing, but he has been around the group and being pretty influential.

"We know [from] a player of that experience, it's invaluable.

"He's the most capped, or just about the most capped, Highlander. With his All Black duties and that, he's going to bring something special.

"As I say, he's been around the group, been really good around the group - particularly with the young guys.

"If he's running out there on Friday, I'll be looking forward to his influence."

Dillon also says the side are feeling the impacts of such heavy losses early on in the season.

Few teams would be able to concede more than 50 points in their first two matches and still consider themselves contenders.

But the Highlanders know they have to put their recent horrors behind them, if they're to avoid a 0-3 start against the Chiefs on Friday night.

"We don't go out to put results like that out on the park. This is a proud region with a proud history.

"We're hurting, but you've got to learn from it, got to move forward. 

"The week comes around pretty quick. We're flying on the Saturday, we play on the Friday up in Hamilton against another quality side in the Chiefs."

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