New Zealand-born Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley will return to his homeland after signing a two-season deal with the Highlanders that is set to commence next season.

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The 24-year-old was born in the Central Otago town of Clyde before and schooled at the famed rugby nursery Otago Boys’ High School in Dunedin before moving to Western Australia to kickstart his professional career in the NRC with the Perth Spirit five years ago.

A Super Rugby call-up with the Western Force came the following year, but after 17 appearances, Ainsley shifted to the Melbourne Rebels with 11 teammates and head coach Dave Wessels in the wake of the Perth franchise’s axing from the competition in 2017.

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Fan reaction from Eden Park at Blues vs Hurricanes clash.

It’s at AAMI Park where the son of former All Blacks prop Joe McDonnell has since remained, but his three-season tenure at the Victorian club will come to an end this year as he embarks on a homecoming of sorts with the Highlanders.

“I’m very excited to be coming home and be surrounded by family,” Ainsley, who made his Wallabies debut against the All Blacks in 2018, said. “Can’t wait to play Super Rugby in New Zealand it’s a dream come true.”

Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger said he was excited by the prospect of welcoming a young front rower with international experience into his squad.

“Even though Jermaine is only 24, he already has a wealth of experience with over 50 games Super Rugby games and also some exposure at test level,” he said. “The fact that he has a strong link with our region and club history makes it all the better.”

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By moving from the Rebels to the Highlanders, Ainsley follows in the footsteps of ex-Highlanders and one-test All Blacks prop Tyrel Lomax, who shifted from Melbourne to Dunedin two years ago before moving to the Hurricanes this season.

The trans-Tasman move also makes the tighthead prop ineligible for Wallabies selection, as, under the Giteau Law, he doesn’t meet the 60-cap threshold required for offshore-based Australian players.

Still only in his mid-20s, however, there is plenty of time for Ainsley to move back to Australia and further his international career – especially with his Highlanders contract expiring in 2022, a year out from the 2023 World Cup in France.

The acquisition of Ainsley is the fifth piece of business the Highlanders have made since the coronavirus outbreak.

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The franchise had already signed former All Blacks wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, inexperienced Canterbury wing Sam Gilbert and young Taranaki loose forward Tom Florence as injury cover for the likes of Tevita Nabura, Connor Garden-Bachop, Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Sione Misiloi.

Despite having signed a three-year contract that was set to commence next year, All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi also joined the squad last month as a result of the year-long postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.

Koroi and Gilbert made their debuts for the Highlanders on Saturday in the club’s last-gasp 28-27 defeat of the Chiefs in the opening match of Super Rugby Aotearoa at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

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