New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises have all returned to action as pre-season gets underway across the country in preparation for the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

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The Highlanders, though, have had to make do without one of their key recruits with Kazuki Himeno, one of the standouts for Japan at the 2019 World Cup, absent from training this week.

Speaking to Stuff, Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said the 26-year-old loose forward remains in Japan, but is expected to arrive in New Zealand on February 7.

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Himeno will then undergo a two-week isolation period, meaning he won’t be available for the franchise until February 22 – just four days out from the side’s season-opener against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

As a result, 20-year-old Otago rookie Sean Withy had been called into the squad as extra cover alongside Irish lock Jack Regan and standout wing Freedom Vahaakolo.

Clark told Stuff the Highlanders had to acquire a critical workers visa for the 17-test star via a third-party organisation to get him into New Zealand in spite of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

That will be welcome news for Highlanders fans, as Himeno’s presence in the squad adds to the franchise’s enviable loose forward depth.

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All Blacks pair Liam Squire and Shannon Frizell, and rising star Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, will all compete with Himeno for the No. 6 and No. 8 jerseys this year, while James Lentjes and ex-Crusaders flanker Billy Harmon are set to tussle for the No. 7 spot.

Stuff reports that Lentjes took part in fitness testing on Tuesday, 11 months after suffering a horror ankle injury against the Melbourne Rebels in Dunedin last year, although he and Squire won’t take part in full training until Wednesday.

A further four players – Frizell, Aaron Smith, Ash Dixon and Nehe Milner-Skudder – have been granted extended time off for various reasons, meaning they all missed the Bronco test that took place on Wednesday.

None of the players involved could replicate Beauden Barrett’s record-breaking effort at the Blues last year, when he ran the 1.2km test in 4min and 12sec, nor could they topple Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru’s winning time of 4min 16sec this year.

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However, halfback Kayne Hammington came out on top as the Highlanders’ Bronco champion, running a time of 4min 23sec, equalling the Crusaders record set by former All Blacks halfback Andy Ellis.

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