The Highlanders have raided the Crusaders once again as they look to re-build their squad for the 2021 Super Rugby campaign, signing Tongan utility back Fetuli Paea on a two-year deal.

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The 26-year-old will join Crusaders flanker Billy Harmon, who looms as a replacement to the Blues-bound Dillon Hunt, at the Dunedin franchise for the next two seasons, with the duo both moving south in search of more game time.

That game time should come following the departure of experienced midfielder Rob Thompson, who took to Instagram last month to announce he would be leaving the Highlanders after five seasons with the club.

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Paea, who is a former Tonga sevens representative and has two test caps to his name, played four times for the Crusaders en route to their fourth straight title.

Capable of playing at centre or on the wing, Paea ironically made his Crusaders debut off the bench against the Highlanders in round four of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

He impressed throughout the tournament, and adequately filled in the starting centre role on two occasions during the absence of the injured Braydon Ennor.

At provincial level, Paea was part of the 2019 Tasman side that went undefeated in their tilt for the Mitre 10 Cup title, and will again appear for the Mako over the coming weeks.

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By signing Paea, he becomes the fourth player the Highlanders have recruited directly from the Crusaders over the past two seasons, following in the footsteps of Harmon, Mitch Hunt and Ngane Punivai.

The constant recruitment drive into the Crusaders’ roster is representative of the re-building phase the Highlanders are enduring following last year’s exodus of numerous key players, as well as the depth evident in their South Island rival’s squad.

“I’m excited to be going down to the Highlanders after my Mitre 10 Cup season with Tasman. It’s a great new challenge and awesome opportunity that will help grow my rugby career further,” Paea said in a statement.

Highlanders assistant coach Tony Brown added: “We are excited to secure someone of Fetuli’s ability for the next two years and are looking forward to helping him develop into a world-class player.”

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Both Paea and Harmon join Melbourne Rebels and Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley as the new faces in the Highlanders set-up for next season.

Highlanders 2020-21 transfers

In: Jermaine Ainsley (Melbourne Rebels), Billy Harmon, Fetuli Paea (both Crusaders)

Out: Dillon Hunt (Blues), Aaron Mauger (coach, released), Rob Thompson (TBC)

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