Super Rugby Pacific: Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody sounds challenge to All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot with first start of 2024

Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody has thrown down the gauntlet to his sole All Black, as his side prepare to face the Blues in Melbourne this weekend.

Ethan de Groot has been named for his first start of 2024, having missed the opening round and Dermody admits he was behind his teammates in pre-season.

Now, Dermody now expects De Groot to step up.

The Highlanders have a spring in their step this week, buoyed by their second-half comeback against Moana Pasifika and are confident they can repeat the dose against the Blues.

"We feel like this is a really new team this year," said Dermody. "We've had a big turnover of players, so we don't get dragged down by what's happened."

To help with that, the Highlanders' only All Black returns to the mix this week.

De Groot sat out round one after struggling to get up to speed in pre-season.

And, even with his return for their Blues clash, Dermody insists he must prove himself given the form of the incumbents.

"It's put selection pressure on Ethan this week," he added. "So now it's up to him.

"We know how he can play, we're looking forward to seeing him play."

De Groot played the Highlanders' final pre-season match against the Crusaders, Dermody admits the All Blacks loosehead wasn't at his best.

"We felt he was a bit behind the other boys in pre-season," he said. "But he's had a big week last week and trained well this week."

The Blues, meanwhile, welcome back their own enforcer this week.

It's been a tough road back for Akira Ioane, who's been out of all rugby since September with a calf injury.

Akira Ioane also makes his first start of the year.
Akira Ioane also makes his first start of the year. Photo credit: Getty Images

"[I'm] just stoked to be back out there with the boys," said Ioane. "First and foremost, I need to make sure I'm playing good and doing my job."

Because there are plenty in the Blues loose forwards mix already doing that and Ioane acknowledges nothing is guaranteed when it comes to selection.

"We've always had a strong loosie core," he continued. "That's a credit to the boys doing the hard work.

"They took their opportunities. I guess it's my turn now."

Ioane is keen not to waste his first chance to do that this season.