Sopoaga ruled out of South Africa tour

Injured All Black Lima Sopoaga won't feature during the Highlanders' two-match tour of South Africa.

Sopoaga, one of a bunch of All Blacks under an injury cloud ahead of the looming British and Irish Lions tour, hasn't played since pinging a hamstring against the Blues in round three. 

The 26-year-old was initially given a six-eight week prognosis, and Highlanders coach Tony Brown was last week hopeful the pivot would return against the Bulls in Pretoria Sunday week (NZT). 

However, speaking from Bloemfontein on Thursday morning , Brown said Sopoaga was still "at least" two weeks away. 

"He's still doing a bit of rehab running. If that goes well . . . and he can get some more fitness under his belt, fingers crossed he might [play against the Force] in Perth," Brown said.

Should he return in Perth, 10 weeks will have passed since he picked up the injury while making a scrambling, try-saving tackle at Eden Park.

Time is ticking for the six-cap All Black to prove to selectors he deserves to be one of three first-five eighths in the squad for the three-match test series against the Lions. 

Playing against the Force would give him three Super Rugby matches to put his hand up, while there could also be an opportunity to sneak in a game of club rugby. 

The Highlanders have trucked on without Sopoaga, winning five of their six games with Marty Banks and Fletcher Smith running the backline. 

Searching for a sixth consecutive win, Banks will start in the No 10 jersey against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday morning. 

Missing injured co-captain Ben Smith (ankle) for two weeks, Brown has tossed the starting fullback job to South Otago product Matt Faddes.

​Brown named Richard Buckman on the bench as cover on Wednesday (NZT), but on Thursday said the utility was "in doubt" to play.

Buckman missed the team's last two games with an achilles injury, which Brown said was still playing up. 

"Not sure who will come into the team as yet. We're still looking at that, we will see how [Buckman] pulls up tomorrow."

Midfielder Tei Walden and wing Tevita Li are both in the touring group and available to step into the match-day 23. 

Saturday's game against the Cheetahs marks the penultimate Super Rugby game in South Africa for Brown, who will leave the franchise to take up an assistant coaching job with Japan at the end of the season. 

Brown admitted he will miss touring South Africa, one of his favourite parts of Super Rugby. 

"It will be a bit sad not coming here next year, but there will be somewhere else I can head to no doubt," he said. 

The Cheetahs head into the round 11 match with a 2-7 record, their latest loss a 48-21 hammering by the Crusaders a week ago. 

It would be a tall order to convince even the staunchest Cheetahs fan the home side has a sniff, but Brown is weary of their free-flowing attack and isn't about to get ahead of himself.

"They had a pretty good hit out against the Crusaders last week and, at times, put the Crusaders under a lot of pressure," he said.

"They will take confidence from that and they will definitely they they can do the same against us. We've got to be very good defensively."

Highlanders: Matt Faddes, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Patrick Osborne, Marty Banks, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock (co-captain), Dillon Hunt, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon (co-captain), Aki Seiuli, Siate Tokolahi, Elliot Dixon, Gareth Evans, Kayne Hammington, Fletcher Smith, Richard Buckman. 


Photo: Getty Images (Lima Sopoaga is expected to miss at least two more games for the Highlanders).