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Highlanders sign two New Zealand U20 prospects including 'Lima Sopoaga 2.0'

By Ben Smith
Ajay Faleafaga of the Highlanders takes a kick at goal during the U20 Super Rugby match between Chiefs and Highlanders at Owen Delany Park on March 19, 2023 in Taupo, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images for NZR)

The Highlanders have signed a handful of young prospects to full-time contracts including two New Zealand U20 reps as they rebuild with youth following the first year under head coach Clarke Dermody.

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Ajay Faleafaga, a first five-eighth who can also cover second five, has been upgraded to full-time squad after joining the academy system of the Otago-based franchise after finishing school in Auckland.

Faleafaga, currently with the New Zealand U20s in South Africa, joins local prospect Cam Miller as highly touted No 10s on the Highlanders roster.

The 20-year-old is a gifted playmaker whose style has drawn parallels with ex-All Black Lima Sopoaga, who the Highlanders also recruited at an early age.

He helped delivered the franchise’s first Super Rugby title in 2015 and they will be hoping that Faleafaga can deliver similar results over the long term.

Also joining Faleafaga is two hookers, Southland-product Jake Taylor who has started the first two matches of the World Rugby U20 Championships, and Otago’s Henry Bell, who returns to New Zealand after a season of MLR rugby in America.

Taylor made his Super Rugby debut off the bench for the Highlanders in 2023.

Also bolstering the depth of the squad is midfielder Jake Te Hiwi, halfback Nathan Hastie, loose forward Oliver Haigwill and openside Hayden Michaels.

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Michaels captained the Highlanders U20 team in 2022 and made the NZU20 team in the same year.

General Manager Greg O’Brien is delighted to see the investment in a high performance programme for youth development reaping rewards.

“The investment in our youth programme over the last few years is starting to pay dividends, we have worked hard to ensure we can provide a genuine pathway for our players from high school to Highlanders,” he said.

Highlanders’ head coach Clarke Dermody is equally excited at the prospect of some younger players coming through next season after a challenging year for the franchise.

“The calibre of players coming through is very exciting, I know they’ll all want to work hard to compete for spots and I certainly don’t mind hard working players with a passion for the Highlanders,” he said.

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