Former All Blacks loose forward Liam Squire will return to Super Rugby next year after signing with the Highlanders for 2021. Squire, who made 33 appearances for the Highlanders between 2016 and 2019, departed New Zealand last year following a title-winning spell in the Mitre 10 Cup with the Tasman Mako.

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Linking up with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, the 29-year-old managed just four outings with his Japanese club before a knee injury and the advent of COVID-19 cut his Top League experience short.

He has since returned to New Zealand, where he has also undergone hip surgery, and has inked a deal that will see him back in action at Forsyth Barr Stadium during next year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

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“After getting that hip surgery and how I was feeling, and also probably a couple other little things, I sort of felt like I had a bit left here in New Zealand,” Squire, who still holds aspirations of a test rugby return, said of his decision to rejoin the Highlanders.

“I guess staying home and playing Super Rugby again was quite exciting. I sort of feel refreshed again, so I sort of got my second wind, which is good.”

The 23-test All Black is one of two returning Highlanders and among eight new players who didn’t feature in this year’s campaign.

Joining Squire in his franchise comeback is 34-year-old prop Josh Hohneck, who was part of the Highlanders side that clinched a maiden Super Rugby crown back in 2015.

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Departing for England the following year, Hohneck spent four seasons in the Gallagher Premiership with Gloucester where he played over 100 matches before returning to New Zealand to play for Otago in the Mitre 10 Cup.

His strong form for the province has earned him selection in the Maori All Blacks side to face Moana Pasifika in Hamilton this weekend.

Hohneck isn’t the only player making their way back from England to play for the Highlanders next year, with two-test All Blacks lock Bryn Evans named in the squad to fill the void left by Waratahs-bound second-rower Jack Whetton.

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Evans, the older brother of one-test All Blacks, Hurricanes and ex-Highlanders flanker Gareth, has spent the last nine years in Europe after his surprise test call-up in 2009, plying his trade for the likes of London Irish, Biarritz and Sale Sharks.

So good was the 36-year-old Hawke’s Bay veteran in Europe that he was named in former England midfielder Will Greenwood’s Premiership Team of the Decade, meaning he will add good depth to the squad’s lock stocks.

That trio are the only three players whose arrivals hadn’t already been officially announced by the Highlanders for next season.

They will be joined by three-test Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley, Japan loose forward Kazuki Himeno, ex-Chiefs speedster Solomon Alaimalo and former Crusaders duo Fetuli Paea and Billy Harmon as the newbies of the squad.

The loose forwards subsequently look an area of strength, with Squire, Himeno and Harmon adding a lot of experience and talent to a contingent that already features the likes of Shannon Frizell, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and ex-captain James Lentjes.

Lentjes was named as skipper of the side at the beginning of this year’s campaign, but had his season cut short in February after breaking his leg badly against the Melbourne Rebels.

He hasn’t featured since, and has lost his captaincy to veteran pair Aaron Smith and Ash Dixon, both of whom co-captained the side through Super Rugby Aotearoa.

It’s a similar story for youngsters Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden-Bachop and Thomas Umaga-Jensen, all of whom have played limited roles at the Highlanders over the past two seasons due to long-term injuries.

However, those three have been retained, and will be eager to compete for starting roles, which may come easier with the likes of flanker Dillon Hunt, Taranaki midfielder Teihorangi Walden and wings Kirisi Kuridrani and Tevita Nabura all moving on.

One-test All Blacks flanker Hunt has signed with his hometown team the Blues, while Walden and Counties Manukau duo Kuridrani and Nabura have all been released.

The trio are just three of many players who won’t feature for the Highlanders after being involved this year, with Rob Thompson and Jesse Parete defecting to Japan, while Bryn Gatland has signed with the Chiefs.

Others, including Waikato prop Josh Iosefa-Scott, Bay of Plenty and Tonga flanker Zane Kapeli, and Canterbury fullback Josh McKay, have all been let go.

Furthermore, the inclusion of outside back Vilimoni Koroi has been clouded by his All Blacks Sevens commitments, with the 22-year-old set to assemble with the national sevens side in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics in July and August.

Nevertheless, new head coach Tony Brown – who returns to the position after three years away in other roles, including serving as an assistant to former head coach Aaron Mauger in 2020 – remains excited about his side’s prospects for the new-look season.

“I think we had a lot of young guys last year and I think we’re going to have a lot of experience at Super Rugby level around what it takes to win games, especially in the dying moments of the game, the last 20 minutes,” he said.

“With a lot more experience, I think we’ve got a better team and a team that can really compete at the highest level.

“So, hoping to play some pretty good footy, but, in the key moments in games, with a bit more experience, I think we’re going to hopefully execute a bit better instead of losing by a couple of points. We’re going to be winning those games.”

2020-21 Highlanders transfers

IN: Jermaine Ainsley (Melbourne Rebels), Bryn Evans (Sale Sharks), Billy Harmon (Crusaders), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz), Josh Hohneck (Gloucester), Liam Squire (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Fetuli Paea (Crusaders)

OUT: Tima Fainga’anuku (released), Bryn Gatland (Chiefs), Dillon Hunt (Blues), Josh Iosefa-Scott (released), Zane Kapeli (released), Kirisi Kuridrani (released), Josh McKay (released), Tevita Nabura (released), Jesse Parete (Canon Eagles), Rob Thompson (Toyota Verblitz), Nathan Vella (released), Teihorangi Walden (released), Jack Whetton (Waratahs)

Highlanders Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman 2021 squad

Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon (cc), Ricky Jackson

Props: Jermaine Ainsley*, Ethan De Groot, Josh Hohneck**, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi, Jeff Thwaites

Locks: Josh Dickson, Bryn Evans*, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit

Loose Forwards: Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon*, Kazuki Himeno*, James Lentjes, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Sione Misiloi, Liam Squire**

Halfbacks: Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith (cc)

First-Fives: Mitch Hunt, Josh Ioane

Midfielders: Michael Collins, Scott Gregory, Fetuli Paea*, Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen

Outside Backs: Solomon Alaimalo*, Connor Garden-Bachop, Sam Gilbert, Vilimoni Koroi***, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jona Nareki, Ngatungane Punivai

* – denotes new Highlanders in 2021

** – denotes returning Highlanders in 2021

*** – Koroi will assemble with the All Blacks Sevens squad in preparation of the Tokyo Olympics

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