Consequences after the loss to the Force are reflected in the Highlanders' choices for their DHL Super Rugby Pacific game with the Waratahs in Sydney on Friday.

As expected, Aaron Smith returns to start and captain the side, at halfback with Folau Fakatava back on the bench.

Smith leads as usual captain and flanker Billy Harmon has returned home for personal reasons. Sean Withy takes his place.

Fabian Holland will have his second start with Hugh Renton back at No8 resulting in Pari Pari Parkinson and Marino Mikaele-Tu'u dropping to the bench. 

Sam Gilbert has moved up to second five-eighths with Connor Garden-Bachop at fullback. Scott Gregory will have his first start of the season on the wing.

Both sides are battling to claim a place in the top eight for the playoffs, and the Waratahs, who are coming off a thrashing by the Blues last week and have won only two games, are desperate to keep their prospects alive.

It was no surprise to coach Clarke Dermody that players rested for the Blues game would return to play the Highlanders.

"The reality is, if you're going to target a New Zealand team, it's probably going to be us," Dermody said.

He said the Highlanders were 'pretty real' about their effort against the Force.

"It's a balance of getting a reaction out of some of those guys. Sometimes the best way is to lose your spot.

"They were disappointed, as you should be when that happens in a rugby team. We're looking for a real response from some of those guys off the bench to impact the game."

If this week's training was any indication, there would be a lift in intensity as they get closer to the game.

"The language between the players is a bit different. We didn't play anywhere near the level we expected [in Perth], so there's a bit more edge around this game.

"It comes down to mindset, making sure we get that right to prepare a team that is waiting and has rested Wallabies to be able to beat us, so that's a good challenge.

Dermody said Nareki would best be used in the last 20-30 minutes.

"He's been doing some good things at training and ticked off everything he needed to at home, so it's a good game for him to get back involved with the team, and I know he's excited about it.