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Report: Standout Mitre 10 Cup star one of three new players signed by Highlanders

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

After missing out on a place in the 2021 Highlanders squad last month, it appears standout Otago wing Freedom Vahaakolo has earned a reprieve from the Dunedin franchise.

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According to a report from Stuff, the 23-year-old speedster, who lit up the Mitre 10 Cup last year through his sizeable physical frame and impressive skill set, has been handed a short-term deal by the Highlanders due to the unavailability of Sam Gilbert.

Stuff reports Gilbert isn’t expected to recover from the ACL tear he sustained during last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa clash with the Blues until April, paving the way for Vahaakolo to come into the squad on a short-term basis.

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The promotion to Super Rugby is good reward for Vahaakolo, who shone in his debut Mitre 10 Cup season as he scored seven tries and was voted NZRPA Mitre 10 Young Player of the Year by his peers.

Having also trained with the Highlanders upon his move from Auckland to Dunedin last year, it was surprising, then, to see Vahaakolo’s name absent from the squad list for the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaigns.

Instead, Gilbert, Solomon Alaimalo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jona Nareki, Vilimoni Koroi, Ngane Punivai and Connor Garden-Bachop were all named as the franchise’s outside backs.

Those players will now have to compete with Vahaakolo for playing time, and with Gilbert seemingly out of action for a further three months, and Alaimalo targeting the fullback role, there is every chance the former Auckland age-grade representative will get his chance in Super Rugby.

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The acquisition of Vahaakolo will be sure to excite some of his Highlanders teammates.

Highlanders first-five Josh Ioane told RugbyPass last year how he had been impressed with the youngster during his time at both the franchise and Otago.

“Freedom’s been training with us at the Highlanders. [I’ve] been able to see how good of a player he is, and he definitely showed that on the weekend,” Ioane said.

“He looked quite dangerous and looked like a quality football player. [I’ve] been working with him the past few weeks, so it’s good to see him have a crack.”

Vahaakolo reportedly isn’t the only new short-term addition to the Highlanders.

According to Stuff, Otago pair Sean Withy and Jack Regan have also joined the squad as cover for loose forward Kazuki Himeno and lock Pari Pari Parkinson, respectively.

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Stuff reports that Himeno, a new signing for the Highlanders who starred for Japan at the 2019 World Cup, is stuck in his homeland due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, while Parkinson isn’t expected to recover from ankle surgery until April.

Both Withy, 20, and Regan, 23, made their Mitre 10 Cup debuts for Otago in 2020, with Withy earning his opportunity after impressing at club level in just his second year out of Southland Boys’ High School.

Regan, meanwhile, has a unique background, with the Irish second-rower moving to New Zealand following stints with PRO14 outfits Ulster and Leinster.

All three of Vahaakolo, Withy and Regan could make their first appearances for the Highlanders next month when they play the Crusaders in a pre-season fixture in Temuka on February 12.

The two sides will then open the Super Rugby Aotearoa season at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin a fortnight later.

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