Highlanders promote young pair for 2022 Super Rugby Pacific squad
20-year-old loose forward Sean Withy and 21-year-old prop Saula Ma’u have both signed on for the 2022 campaign to become the third and fourth new signings by the Highlanders over the off-season.
Promoting both players from the franchise’s high performance programme is an indication of the duo’s ability and potential as neither player boasts much experience at first-class level.
After making his NPC debut for Otago last year, Withy has just four provincial appearances to his name, while injuries have also restricted Ma’u to four appearances off the bench in Otago colours since 2019.
However, while they are light on experience at professional level, both players have talent and promise in bucketloads.
Withy, for example, was a member of this year’s New Zealand U20 squad after being named Player of the Tournament as captain of the Highlanders U20 side in this year’s inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa U20 competition.
Prior to that, the youngster was called into the senior Highlanders squad as injury cover in the early stages of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season by head coach Tony Brown, but wasn’t required to play.
Similarly, Ma’u has long been a highly-touted prospect by the Highlanders since moving to Dunedin after finishing his schooling at Auckland Grammar.
Standing at 1.93m and 140kg, the tighthead prop was called into the 2019 New Zealand U20 squad despite being ineligible to play for the age-grade side until this year.
A knee injury robbed Ma’u the chance of joining Withy in representing the Baby Blacks on their domestic tour of New Zealand, but the identification of the former New Zealand Schools player at such a young age speaks volumes of his potential.
Like Withy, Ma’u has been involved with the Highlanders at senior level, having taken part in the franchise’s past two Super Rugby pre-seasons and was called into the squad as injury cover earlier this year.
In a statement, both players said it was a “dream” to sign with the Highlanders, where they will be met with competition from the likes of Shannon Frizell, James Lentjes, Billy Harmon and Jermaine Ainsley for places in their respective positions.
“It’s a big thing for both myself and my family to be signing my first Super Rugby contract,” Ma’u said.
“I am so grateful for all the opportunities so many people have provided for me, I need to thank all those that have helped me reach my dream.
“Having injuries over the last few seasons has been hard but for now I am happy to be looking forward to the Super Rugby season.”
Sean Withy added: “It’s a dream come true for me, being a local boy I grew up watching the Highlanders, it’s been a goal mine for as long as I can remember. To have this opportunity now to actually be a Highlander and represent myself and my family is what it’s all about.”
Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody said he has been impressed by both players since coming into the franchise’s set-up.
“We’ve seen these guys coming through our system over the last few years and they’ve quietly gone about learning all the things you require to achieve at the professional level,” he said.
“There is still plenty for them to work on of course as first year professionals but we believe the upper ceiling on these guys is quite high.”
The signings of Withy and Ma’u come after the Highlanders confirmed the returns of first-five Marty Banks and one-test All Blacks loose forward Gareth Evans, both of whom were part of the title-winning side of 2015.
Highlanders 2021-22 transfers
In: Marty Banks (Southland), Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Sean Withy (Otago), Saula Ma’u (Otago)
Out: Josh Ioane (Chiefs), Ash Dixon (Green Rockets Tokatsu), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz), Siate Tokolahi (Pau), Michael Collins (Ospreys), Jack Regan (Ospreys), Teariki Ben-Nicholas (Castres), Tim O’Malley (Zebre)
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