Every cloud has a silver lining and from a New Zealand rugby point of view, the silver lining of the COVID pandemic is undeniably the return of a number of experienced operators from around the world for what’s shaping up to be an exciting provincial season.

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There was hope that some of the former All Blacks and Super Rugby players that are based in Japan might temporarily make themselves available for this season’s Mitre 10 Cup but that hasn’t transpired due to a raft of complicated issues. However, there will still be a healthy contingent of experienced operators who have returned home and will be donning their province’s colours in the coming weeks.

Simon Hickey – Auckland

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Ross Karl is joined by Brad Weber and Josh Ioane for this weeks episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod as they look back on the epic encounter that was the North vs South match in Wellington.

Former King’s College first five Simon Hickey previously spent four seasons with Auckland and two with the Blues before heading to Europe at the end of 2016.

Following successful stints with Bordeaux Begles and Edinburgh, Hickey signed with the Hurricanes late in the Super Rugby Aotearoa season and has now found himself back with his home province.

Hickey will compete with Harry Plummer for the starting playmaker role.

Kieran Read and Baden Kerr – Counties Manukau

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When Baden Kerr re-signed with Counties, it was considered a little bit of a coup. When it was announced that Kieran Read would finally be packing down with the South Aucklanders for a Mitre 10 season, all hell should have broken loose.

Kieran Read playing for Counties Manukau in a pre-season match in 2018. (Photo by Getty Images)

The former All Blacks captain has had a lengthy break from the game, playing just a handful of matches for Toyota Verblitz before the Top League season was called to a halt. New Zealand hasn’t seen a fully refreshed Read take the field for many a year so how the powerful loose forward fares in the provincial game is anyone’s guess.

The addition of Kerr, who left NZ in 2014 for England but ended up in Japan, also offers the Steelers a much needed experienced hand at first five.

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Liam Messam and Patrick Osborne – Waikato

Liam Messam is the gift that keeps on giving for the Waikato region. The former sevens star left New Zealand following the successful 2015 World Cup in England and represented Toshiba Brave Lupus for four seasons but also popped back to the homeland to grab a couple of extra seasons with the Chiefs. Now that Messam has finished up his one-year stint in France, the most capped Chief of all time is back adding his experience to a young Waikato squad. Adam Thomson will also be present, having returned to NZ last season to link up with Otago.

Flying Fijian Patrick Osborne, meanwhile, was on hand for the Highlanders’ Super Rugby title win in 2015 and will be looking to reach a half century of provincial caps in the upcoming season. Osborne, like so many others, has recently been based in Japan.

Bryn Evans and Lolagi Visinia – Hawke’s Bay

When Bryn Evans was called up to the All Blacks in 2009, few across the country had heard of the grafting second-rower who’d played just a handful of Super Rugby matches. Injuries curtailed Evans’ career in New Zealand but the brother of Hurricanes flanker and Magpies teammate Gareth had plenty of success in Europe with London Irish, Biarritz and Sale.

Lolagi Visini’s career followed a completely different trajectory. Visinia was seemingly destined for greatness and made a big impact when he first arrived onto the scene as a rangey outside back for Auckland but eventually ceded that higher honours would probably never arrive and he made the decision to depart NZ in 2016. Having played in France and Japan, the 27-year-old still has plenty to offer Hawke’s Bay on his return to the country.

Julian Savea – Wellington

‘The Bus’ was once a regular figure on the Wellington, Hurricanes and All Blacks wings – dominating opposition wherever he went. When his time in the national set-up looked to be coming to an end, Savea headed to Toulon where he shifted into the midfield.

With ample options throughout the backline, there are no certainties where the returning hulk will line up – but you’ll certainly feel for whichever man ends up marking him. Savea has his sights set on an All Blacks recall so expect to see him firing from week one.

Quentin MacDonald and Kieron Fonotia – Tasman

Tasman have bolstered their already formidable side with the inclusion of wings Sevu Reece and Mark Telea, but they’ve also managed to bring two of their former stars back home for the upcoming season.

Quentin MacDonald notched up almost 80 appearances for the Mako between 2007 and 2015 before taking his wares to Oyonnax in France. The 31-year-old hooker spent time with the Crusaders, Blues and Chiefs during his time in NZ and will go toe-to-toe with Andrew Makalio for minutes.

Quentin MacDonald. (Photo by Getty Images)

Kieron Fonotia has spent the better part of the last four years in Wales while also representing Samoa. While Tasman are absolutely stacked in the backs, Reece and Will Jordan’s elevation to the All Blacks might open up a spot for the midfielder on the wing.

Jamie Mackintosh and Josh Hohneck – Otago

Betrayals don’t come any worse than this – at least from a Southlander’s point of view. Whoppa, as Jamie Mackintosh is affectionately known, clocked up over 120 matches for the Stags over an 11-year career with the side but will represent Otago this year.

With 88 Super Rugby caps to his name and stints playing in France and the United States (plus two matches for the All Blacks), Mackintosh will add plenty of experience to a front row that will also welcome the return of Josh Hohneck. Hohneck has represented Gloucester since 2016, managing to tick off a Premiership century shortly before the COVID-enforced suspension of the season earlier this year.

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