Ben Smith's future undecided

Whether or not fullback Ben Smith plays Super Rugby again this season is still up in the air.

Smith hasn't played since leaving the field during the first test between the All Blacks and British and Irish Lions last month.

The 31-year-old was thought to have suffered a third concussion this year, only for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to reveal on Thursday it wasn't concussion, but rather an inner-ear problem hindering the Otago product.

Smith won't feature in the series deciding test against the Lions on Saturday night, but the All Blacks vice-captain is in Auckland helping the team prepare for the fixture. 

Brown said it was "very unlikely" Smith would play a part in the Highlanders' final regular season match - against the Reds in Dunedin next Friday night - but he could return in the playoffs. 

"I think Ben will take another week off and then we can make a plan around what his future looks like and maybe he can have a stint in the playoffs for us.

"I need to sit down with him, he will be with the All Blacks and won't get back till next week. It's very unlikely we will use him against the Reds but he could be right for the quarterfinal."

Depending on results next weekend, the Highlanders will either play the Crusaders in Christchurch or be forced to jet to Johannesburg to play the Lions in the first round of the playoffs. 

Having his best player available as the Highlanders bid for a second title in three years will be right at the top of Brown's wish list, but right now he is just relieved Smith didn't suffer a sixth concussion in the past five years.

"From my point of view, it's awesome for Ben and his wife [Katie]. Concussion can be pretty tough for families to take, so it's great it's nothing like that. I think they will be relieved."

While Smith almost certainly won't play against the Reds, another All Black will return as the Highlanders bid to finish the regular season with an 11-4 record. 

Loose forward Liam Squire hasn't played since breaking his thumb against the Cheetahs in May and, despite being available, hasn't been selected to play the Lions on Saturday. 

"I thought he could have been a chance to come off the bench for the All Blacks this Saturday, Brown said. "He's been cleared to play, so we will put him out there against the Reds and unleash him, so that's pretty exciting for us."

Not including Matt Faddes (broken hand) the Highlanders are otherwise healthy as the five Kiwi Super Rugby teams prepare to rejoin the competition after the international window. 

Loose forward Dan Pryor has recovered from his knee injury and returned to action during the Highlanders' 33-12 win against the Crusaders in Timaru on Thursday. 

Both teams, minus their All Blacks and a bunch of rested players, used the "friendly" to dust off the cobwebs and give some players from outside their squads a run. 

The Highlanders outscored the Crusaders by five tries to two and outmuscled the home side in front of about 4500 fans at Alpine Energy Stadium. 

Brown singed out young lock Jackson Hemopo for his "outstanding" performance, and also gave fullback Josh Ioane, who scored a 90m intercept try, a pat on the back. 

"We're getting guys back who are healthy and we're getting young guys like Jackson Hemopo and Josh Ioane at fullback a go, guys who are playing really well and putting pressure on our starting guys. That can only be healthy for our team."


Photo: Ben Smith (left) is not guaranteed to return to the Highlanders this season, despite being cleared of concussion symptoms.