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Highlanders continue squad overhaul following All Blacks exodus with three new signings

By Alex McLeod
Vilimoni Koroi in action for the All Blacks Sevens in 2018. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Highlanders continue to make waves in the Super Rugby transfer market with the announcement of Otago trio Vilimoni Koroi, Michael Collins and Sione Misiloi as their three newest signings.


Otago captain Collins and loose forward Misiloi have both signed one-year deals for the upcoming 2020 season, while Koroi has signed a three-year contract which will commence in 2021, allowing him to chase a gold medal at next year’s Tokyo Olympics with the All Blacks Sevens.

The utility back, who can cover first-five, wing and fullback, has played a key role since debuting for the national sevens side as an 18-year-old in February 2017.

Earlier this year, all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises were allocated one spot on their rosters to sign a player who would be exempt from partaking in the majority of the 2020 Super Rugby campaign to pursue their Olympic ambitions.

Koroi would have qualified for that place in the squad, but young Northland fullback Scott Gregory, whose signing was announced last month, has already taken it.

It means the Highlanders will largely be without both Koroi and Gregory until the year after next, but they, and ex-Blues fullback Collins, were necessary signings following a raft of departures from this year’s side.


Headlining the exodus were outside back duo Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo, who are set to play for Pau and London Irish, respectively, in the 2019/20 Top 14 and Premiership seasons in France and England.

The losses of Matt Faddes (Ulster), Richard Buckman (Kobelco Steelers) and Tevita Li (Suntory Sungoliath) left Josh McKay and Tevita Nabura – who hasn’t played for the Highlanders since being sent off for a flying kick to Cam Clark’s face against the Waratahs in May last year – as the club’s only outside backs.

However, the additions of Koroi and Gregory add depth to a group of untested, yet young and promising, group of signings in the outside backs.


Shortly after the announcement of Gregory’s arrival, the Highlanders announced a further four signings, including exciting outside back trio Jona Nareki, Ngane Punivai and Connor Garden-Bachop.

Crusaders playmaker Mitch Hunt was the other player announced to be making the shift south to Dunedin, and with four seasons of Super Rugby experience with the three-peat champions behind him, both he and Collins will be expected to provide leadership in the backline.

The arrival of Collins is a homecoming of sorts, as the 26-year-old was born and raised in Otago, and has played for the province since 2012.

He was a regular selection in the Blues’ No. 15 jersey under the stewardship of Tana Umaga in his first two season at Super Rugby level.

An ongoing groin injury and the arrival of Leon MacDonald as head coach this year saw him fall out of favour, though, as new Worcester Warriors signing Melani Nanai was instead used as the preferred option.

The addition of the hard-nosed Misiloi – whose rise to professionalism began in 2016 when he first turned out for North Otago in the amateur Heartland Championship – is also a much-needed one in the forward pack.

A plethora of forwards have joined Smith, Naholo, Faddes, Buckman, Li and first-five Marty Banks (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes) in leaving the franchise for greener pastures.

All Blacks loose forwards Liam Squire (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes), Luke Whitelock (Pau) and Elliot Dixon (Ricoh Black Rams) won’t return next year, nor will one-test prop Tyrel Lomax (Hurricanes), five-test lock/loose forward Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi DynaBoars), veteran second rower Tom Franklin (Kobelco Steelers) or experienced prop Aki Seiuli (Glasgow Warriors).

Securing the signature of 24-year-old Misiloi is important for the Highlanders, as he acts as a like-for-like replacement for Hemopo in being able to cover both lock and the back row.

The franchise had been looking at promising young Southland lock Manaaki Selby-Rickett as an acquisition for next year, but an assault charge has been laid against him following an incident that left a man with a fractured jaw.

He will appeared in the Invercargill District Court on Tuesday, and will reappear on October 1, where he will enter a plea, leaving his place in the squad in jeopardy.

The Highlanders begin their 2020 Super Rugby campaign against the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on February 7.

Highlanders 2019-20 transfers

In: Michael Collins (Blues/Otago), Connor Garden-Bachop (Wellington), Scott Gregory (Northland/NZ Sevens), Mitch Hunt (Crusaders/Tasman), Vilimoni Koroi (Otago/NZ Sevens – contract begins 2021), Sione Misiloi (Otago), Jona Nareki (Otago/NZ Sevens), Ngane Punivai (Crusaders/Canterbury)

Out: Marty Banks (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes), Richard Buckman (Kobelco Steelers), Elliot Dixon (Ricoh Black Rams), Matt Faddes (Ulster), Tom Franklin (Kobelco Steelers), Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi DynaBoars), Tevita Li (Suntory Sungoliath), Tyrel Lomax (Hurricanes), Aki Seiuli (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Smith (Pau), Liam Squire (NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes), Luke Whitelock (Pau)

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