Inspirational Tonga loose forward and former Highlanders co-captain Nasi Manu is returning to New Zealand rugby.

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The 31-year-old has returned to New Zealand after five-year stint in Europe to sign a one-year deal with Otago for this year’s Mitre 10 Cup.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Manu, as although he has never represented Otago at provincial level, he established himself as a Highlanders great during his six-season spell with the Dunedin franchise between 2010 and 2015.

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In his final year with the club, he – alongside former All Blacks fullback Ben Smith – co-captained the Highlanders to their maiden Super Rugby title, claiming a 21-14 grand final win over the Hurricanes in Wellington in his last game for the franchise.

He has since spent time with PRO14 clubs Edinburgh and Benetton Treviso, but his time with the latter side was interrupted by a testicular cancer diagnosis that kept him out of the game for the entire 2018-19 European domestic season.

After undergoing chemotherapy treatment, however, Manu made a full recovery and played three times for Tonga at last year’s World Cup in Japan.

Such experience both domestically and internationally will be highly valued by Otago, especially given the departure of Adam Thomson, who has signed with Waikato after joining the Chiefs for this year’s Super Rugby competition.

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Manu will be joined by two other new additions to the Otago squad, including his former Highlanders teammate Josh Hohneck, who has also returned to Dunedin four years after leaving to join Premiership outfit Gloucester.

A former Waikato and Bay of Plenty prop, the 2015 Super Rugby winner made four appearances for Otago before linking up with the Cherry and Whites in England, where he notched up over 100 matches for the club.

The 34-year-old announced last month that he would be ending his four-year tenure at Gloucester to return to his homeland, and will add plenty of experience to a promising Otago front row in his one-season deal.

Rookie wing Freedom Vaha’akolo has also been picked up by the union after moving down to Dunedin from Auckland.

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Unable to break his way into the Auckland Mitre 10 Cup squad, the 23-year-old headed south in search of opportunities and has been rewarded for his scintillating form at grassroots level, that has seen him bag six tries in five games, with a one-year contract.

The acquisitions of all three players takes the number of players contracted to Otago for the 2020 season to 23, but ORFU general manager Richard Kinley told the Otago Daily Times that players will be continually added throughout the campaign.

Manu’s and Hohneck’s returns are representative of the growing trend of experienced players coming back to New Zealand after periods away offshore in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks flanker Liam Messam is among the headline returnees after deciding to head back to Waikato following two years in France with Toulon.

Elsewhere, former Blues outside back Lolagi Visinia and Tonga international and Chiefs cult hero Sona Taumalolo have signed with Hawke’s Bay, while Samoa midfielder Kieron Fonotia and and veteran hooker Quintin MacDonald have returned to Tasman.

Otago players contracted for 2020 Mitre 10 Cup season

Props: Jonah Aiona, George Bower, Josh Hohneck, Saula Ma’u, Hisa Sasagi

Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ricky Jackson

Locks: Josh Dickson, Josh Hill, Sione Misiloi

Loose Forwards: James Lentjes, Nasi Manu, Slade McDowall, Dylan Nel

Halfbacks: Kayne Hammington

First-Fives: Josh Ioane

Midfielders: Aleki Morris-Lome, Patelesio Tomkinson, Matt Whaanga

Outside Backs: Michael Collins, Vilimoni Koroi, Jona Nareki, Freedom Vaha’akolo

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