He may have been one of the most loyal servants to the Highlanders since first joining the franchise in 2016, but veteran midfielder Teihorangi Walden looks to have played his last game for the Dunedin club.
The Taranaki captain will lead his side out against Otago on Sunday in search of retaining their newly-crowned Ranfurly Shield status, but he will also be playing for his future after he revealed he is out-of-contract for the 2021 Super Rugby season.
Speaking to Stuff earlier this week, the 27-year-old midfielder said he hadn’t been offered a new deal for the upcoming season, seemingly bringing an end to his five-season spell with the Highlanders.
The announcement comes after he played a limited role in the side’s Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign this year, losing his preferred No. 12 jersey to Sio Tomkinson.
In total, he was named on the bench just once in their campaign-opening victory against the Chiefs, and it appears that hasn’t been enough to keep him at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
He joins Canterbury outside back Josh McKay as players to have missed out on contract renewals for next season, although both players have plenty of experience and talent between them to vie for spots at other franchises across the country.
With 35 Highlanders appearances to his name, Walden – who started for the franchise in their famous 23-22 victory over the British and Irish Lions three years ago – leaves the club with a hole to plug in their squad roster.
Through the signing of Crusaders utility back and Tongan international Fetuli Paea, the Highlanders look to have already gone some way to filling the void left by Walden and Rob Thompson, who posted on Instagram last month that his time with the club has ended, in the midfield.
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In 2016 I got a call to come to dunedin and play for the highlanders. The last five years has been an absolute dream come true and to be able to play 58 games means a lot to me. I’ve played with and against some of the greats of the game and made friendships that will last a lifetime. I also want to thank the support base we’ve had from the locals here in Dunedin. They are true die hard fans, a few I have come close with. Special mentions to @limasopoaga for taking me under his wing in my very first year. Lastly thank you for the @highlandersteam for the amazing opportunities and support they have given me @drummond_shane cheers mate Highlanders 2016 – 2020 a team I’ll always hold close to my heart ?? ??
The franchise have also locked in Otago captain Michael Collins, who flourished upon his move from fullback to centre midway through Super Rugby Aotearoa, for another year in a move that should help bolster their midfield stocks.
Thomas Umaga-Jensen, who was ruled out for the 2020 season with a shoulder injury, has also switched provincial allegiance from Wellington to Otago, which could indicate that he will also be back with the Highlanders next season as well.
The departures of Walden, Thompson and McKay, as well as the addition of Paea, is representative of the ongoing change of personnel at the Highlanders leading into 2021.
One-test All Blacks flanker Dillon Hunt confirmed his exit to join up with the Blues in his hometown of Auckland on a two-year deal last month.
His place in the squad, though, has been taken by Crusaders openside Billy Harmon, who joins Paea in moving down from Christchurch after struggling for game time behind the likes of Tom Christie and Sione Havili.
The changes have also been apparent in the coaching ranks, with the franchise parting ways with head coach Aaron Mauger earlier this month following their fourth-placed finish in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Assistant coach Tony Brown has been tipped for the top job, while fellow assistant Mark Hammett has also left the club, with the Highlanders indicating that they won’t be searching for a replacement due to the financial constraints brought on by COVID-19.
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