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One-test All Black returns to Highlanders as one of two new signings

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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A one-test All Black and 2015 Super Rugby title-winner has returned to the Highlanders as one of two new signings ahead of next year’s campaign.

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The Highlanders confirmed on Monday that loose forward Gareth Evans will relocate back to Dunedin for a second stint with the side after he left for the Hurricanes in 2018.

Prior to his shift to Wellington, Evans had played 44 times for the Highlanders between 2014 and 2017, and featured prominently in 2015 as the franchise brought home its first, and only, Super Rugby title to date.

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Beauden Barrett on 100 tests for the All Blacks, Jarvo and beating Wales in Cardiff
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Beauden Barrett on 100 tests for the All Blacks, Jarvo and beating Wales in Cardiff

After his first season with the Hurricanes, the 30-year-old went on to make his test debut for the All Blacks against Japan in Tokyo, but has since struggled for game time due to injury and the form of other loose forwards such as Ardie Savea and Du’Plessis Kirifi.

That has instigated a move back south for Evans, who said he is excited by the prospect of playing alongside his brother and former two-test All Blacks lock Bryn, who was a standout for the Highlanders this year following a nine-year spell in European club rugby.

“To go back to the place where it all started for me, with Dunedin RFC at club level, Otago at provincial level and Super Rugby with the Highlanders, as well as the opportunity to play with my brother, made it an easy decision to return,” Evans said.

“I missed parts of the 2021 season so I’m eager to start contributing and achieving some personal milestones. It looks like an exciting group of players down there that are heading in the right direction under Brownie [head coach Tony Brown] and Derms [assistant coach Clarke Dermody].”

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Capable of covering all three loose forward roles, Evans joins youngster Sean Withy in replacing departed Japanese international Kazuki Himeno and retired ex-All Blacks star Liam Squire in the Highlanders’ back row next year.

That versatility could also prove to be crucial given openside flanker Billy Harmon is expected to miss the opening half of the season through injury.

The Highlanders have also announced the acquisition of giant hooker Andrew Makalio from the Crusaders for next year’s campaign.

Standing at 1.82m and 111kg, Makalio is a compactly-built player who has made a name for himself as a powerful ball-carrier during his time in Super Rugby and the NPC.

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By joining the Highlanders, the 29-year-old joins a growing list of former Crusaders players who have jumped ship to join their South Island rivals, including Harmon, Mitch Hunt, Fetuli Paea and Ngane Punivai.

It was with the Crusaders where Makalio won five Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa titles since 2017, while he has also played a key role in winning back-to-back NPC titles for Tasman between 2019 and 2020.

Makalio was also selected in the South Island squad for last year’s North vs South clash, but missed all of this year’s Super Rugby season through a neck injury.

Nevertheless, Makalio is excited about joining the Highlanders, where he will compete for a starting role with nine-test All Blacks rake Liam Coltman, after a lengthy spell without action at Super Rugby level.

“I am looking forward to heading to the deep south and joining the Landers. The new challenges ahead are motivating me and I’m ready to rip into the 2022 season,” he said.

Having worked with Makalio during his time as Tasman coach, Dermody is well aware of the threat the barnstorming hooker poses as he prepares to fill the void left by Japan-bound co-captain Ash Dixon.

Likewise, he has also spent extensive time with Evans, who he coached throughout his entire first stint at the Highlanders, and is hopeful the experience and attributes of both players will pay dividends next year.

“We know we are getting proven performers in Gareth and Andrew, they are guys who have been there and done that,” Dermody said.

“Super Rugby is a tough competition that requires a lot of resilience and experience to get the job done. What these guys can bring in terms of their professionalism and game understanding will be very important to us throughout the season.”

Highlanders 2021-22 transfers

In: Marty Banks (Southland), Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Andrew Makalio (Crusaders), Sean Withy (Otago), Saula Ma’u (Otago)

Out: Josh Ioane (Chiefs), Ash Dixon (Green Rockets Tokatsu), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz), Siate Tokolahi (Pau), Michael Collins (Ospreys), Jack Regan (Ospreys), Teariki Ben-Nicholas (Castres), Tim O’Malley (Zebre)

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