The Highlanders aren't making any excuses for their poor start to the new Super Rugby Pacific season but their ever-growing list of injuries is making a decent case for them.
The southerners have opened their season with hefty losses to the Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs to sit last on the table and instead of picking up competition points, they've picked up more injuries.
Heading into last week's match against the Chiefs, the Highlanders had nine players unavailable due to injury and this week that figure has grown again to 12 for this weekend's home clash against the Force in Invercargill.
Along with Marty Banks (groin), Jona Nareki (foot), Marino Mikaele Tu’u (ribs), Scott Gregory (knee), Jeff Thwaites (back), Will Tucker (groin) and Vili Koroi (knee) all being out last week, Saula Ma’u (chest) Freddie Burns (knee) Josh Dickson (illness) Paripari Parkinson (concussion) and Mosese Dawai (knee) have all since joined them after being part of the 28-7 loss to the Chiefs.
In a small win for the team, Sam Gilbert and Jonah Lowe have returned from the injury ward though to start this weekend after missing last week while Mitch Hunt has shaken off his shoulder issue from the match to stay in the side.
Coach Clarke Dermody told reporters today the mood in camp has been "positive" despite the tough three rounds.
"You've seen it through all the teams at the moment - it's a physical game," Dermody said.
"We're coming off the back of three Kiwi derbies which are always tough but we've got full trust in our squad."
Dermody has brought Andrew Makalio back into the front row for Sunday's match while in the middle row, the youngest member of the squad, Fabian Holland, will partner with the oldest player, and Southland Stag stalwart, Josh Bekhuis.
Shannon Frizzell and Hugh Renton return in the loose forwards alongside returning captain Billy Harmon while Wellington tighthead PJ Sheck comes onto the bench for his debut for the injured Ma’u.
The backline is bolstered by the return from injury of Lowe and Gilbert while another starting opportunity has been handed to Martin Bogado.
Folau Fakatava is back from his All Blacks break to provide impact off the bench behind Aaron Smith while young pivot Cameron Millar will get his debut at a ground he knows well, having grown up in Gore.
“The start to our season has not been easy," Dermody said.
"We acknowledge our performances haven’t been where we want them to be but look forward to showing what we have learnt from our defeats. The Force will be wanting to start a tough tour of New Zealand well no doubt.
"However our boys are excited about getting down to Invercargill to play in front of our Southern most fans.”
Highlanders vs Force, Rugby Park, Invercargill, Sunday 19 March 3.35pm
Highlanders: 15. Sam Gilbert, 14. Martin Bogado, 13. Josh Timu, 12. Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 11. Jonah Lowe, 10. Mitch Hunt, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Hugh Renton, 7. Billy Harmon (c), 6. Shannon Frizell, 5. Josh Bekhuis, 4. Fabian Holland, 3. Jermaine Ainsley, 2. Andrew Makalio, 1. Ethan de Groot.
Reserves: 16. Rhys Marshall, 17. Ayden Johnstone, 18. PJ Sheck, 19. Max Hicks, 20. James Lentjes, 21. Folau Fakatava, 22. Cam Millar, 23. Connor Garden-Bachop