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All Blacks-eligible former Wallabies prop 'open' to test rugby return

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Highlanders prop Jermaine Ainsley says he is “open” to a return to test rugby, four years after he last played internationally for the Wallabies.

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Born-and-raised in Otago, Ainsley debuted for the Wallabies against the All Blacks in 2018 after relocating to Australia following his graduation from Otago Boys’ High School in 2013.

Formerly of the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels, the 26-year-old son of ex-All Blacks prop Joe McDonnell went on to play three tests for the Wallabies, playing Italy and England during their 2018 end-of-year tour.

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Ainsley hasn’t been called on by Australia since then, though, and since moved back to New Zealand, signing a two-year deal with the Highlanders ahead of the 2021 season.

After succumbing to a season-ending injury during last year’s pre-season, Ainsley finally took to the field for his new side earlier this year and has become a regular in Tony Brown’s starting lineup.

A mobile and quick tighthead prop, Ainsley has impressed in a Highlanders front row that has enjoyed success at the set piece in Super Rugby Pacific.

That may pique the interest not only of Wallabies selectors, but also those from the All Blacks given Ainsley is now eligible to represent New Zealand internationally thanks to World Rugby’s change in eligibility rules, which came into effect on January 1.

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Those laws stipulate that test-capped players can represent a second country that they are eligible for via birthright, provided they stand down from international rugby for three years.

Ainsley’s three-year stand down from test rugby expired last November, meaning he could play for the All Blacks as early as this July.

However, while he isn’t outright opposed to an international comeback, Ainsley played down the notion that he could play for either the All Blacks or Wallabies in future.

“When I left, I guess I left in a good place,” Ainsley told media on Tuesday of his move back to New Zealand from Australia.

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“I wanted to try something new, experience New Zealand footy. I hadn’t played [in New Zealand] since I was in school, so it was about taking a new opportunity, really, just trying to grow my career.

“International [rugby], it wasn’t on the front mind. It was just I’ve had a lot of injuries. I haven’t played consistently good footy, so that was just first on my mind, to come here.

“I’m just enjoying playing with the boys and learning new stuff every week, and just look forward to trying to grow my game better for the team. Whatever happens international-wise, obviously that’s the end goal, so I’ll leave the door open to it.”

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Ainsley added that he hasn’t been in contact with Rugby Australia and that he’s unsure that he’ll play for the Wallabies again.

“I have no idea. I haven’t been in contact, so I’m not sure. It’s one of those ones I’m not sure about. I’m just focusing on my footy. Like I said, I’ve had heaps of injuries, so I’m just about getting to each game and playing as well as I can.”

Instead, Ainsley is focused on performing for the Highlanders as they look to turn their horror start to the season, with six losses from seven matches, around and clinch a place in the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals.

That mission received a boost last weekend when the southerners notched their first win of the season last weekend when they beat Moana Pasifika at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

Now their attention will turn to this weekend’s home clash against the Hurricanes, a match in which Ainsley is eager to continue the good form he has found himself in after relishing New Zealand’s contrasting style of play to that of Australia.

“I’m really enjoying it. I’m definitely enjoying getting the ball a bit more and I’ve definitely noticed you get involved a lot more in New Zealand, the rugby here, so I’m just really enjoying it and just trying to build on my performances every week.”

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