What it's like as New Zealand's oldest returning Super Rugby player after nine years abroad
It’s been 10 years since new Highlanders lock Bryn Evans last played Super Rugby.
Now the 36-year-old is in the running to debut for his new team when the Highlanders host the Crusaders in the Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium this Friday.
Playing under the closed roof of the 30,000-capacity stadium is a new experience in itself for Evans, who said at a press conference on Monday that the last time he played in Dunedin was at Carisbrook, which was demolished in 2013.
“There’s a few things a bit different,” Evans laughed. “I’m pretty sure back then I had to worry about the weather, so that’s one thing I won’t have to worry about now.”
Evans’ last match in Dunedin would have come while playing for Hawke’s Bay against Otago in the 2010 ITM Cup, a campaign of which he played all 13 games for the Magpies en route to an eighth-place finish.
That came about a year after he made his All Blacks debut at the same ground, coming off the bench against France in a shock 27-22 defeat.
He would make his second and final test appearance against the same opposition, again off the bench, a week later in Wellington, when the All Blacks redeemed themselves with 14-10 win.
However, failure to regain his place in the national side, and an underwhelming 2011 Super Rugby season with the Hurricanes, which saw him feature just once off the bench, led to Evans’ departure to Europe.
After stints in England and France with London Irish, Biarritz and Sale Sharks, Evans made the Northern Hemisphere his home for nine years between 2011 and 2020.
He impressed there too, earning selection in a Premiership Team of the Decade, selected by for England and British and Irish Lions midfielder Will Greenwood.
However, an opportunity to return home and play for Hawke’s Bay alongside younger brother and one-test All Blacks flanker Gareth was one too hard to turn down for Evans, as he said when it was announced he had return to the Magpies last year.
He said that he didn’t have any set-in-stone goals to make a Super Rugby comeback upon his return to New Zealand, but conceded it was “a bit hard to say no” when the Highlanders offered him his second chance at that level.
Reds captain James O'Connor has put Super Rugby AU on notice, warning that his side still have plenty of room for improvement despite thumping the Waratahs 41-7 on Friday. https://t.co/wyEDbJHUQe
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 22, 2021
“It sort of just snowballed a little bit. I started playing for the Bay and just enjoyed being in that sort of environment,” Evans said.
“Browny [Highlanders head coach Tony Brown] came calling and that didn’t really take much for me to get down here.”
The influence of Gareth played its role in getting Bryn back to Dunedin, given the Hurricanes star played for the Highlanders between 2014 and 2017 and won a Super Rugby title with the franchise in 2015.
“He was the first port of call and he had nothing but good things to say about Dunedin life. Obviously he was a bit younger when he was down here so he was doing a few different things that I’ll be doing.
“But, the environment, the coaches, he said if you get a chance to be part of something like that, then just go all in.”
It seems that advice has held true, as Evans said he has enjoyed his time in Dunedin and with the Highlanders after being named in this year’s squad in December.
“It’s been really enjoyable. It’s been tough, a tough pre-season, and the bones have been creaking a few days, but it’s been good. You kind of just get up and go again and put your best foot forward.”
Evans said he’s fortunate that he has a fellow old head in the squad in the form of 34-year-old prop Josh Hohneck, who is also returning to Super Rugby after a lengthy spell in England.
“I’ve got Josh Hohneck here to kind of bounce a few old stories off, but other than that, we’re up there by a bit [in terms of age],” he said.
“But it’s kind of good. It motivates you to keep going.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 22, 2021
Evans featured in the Highlanders’ two pre-season fixtures against the Crusaders and Hurricanes over the past fortnight and remains in contention for selection this weekend.
Brown said after his side’s win over the Hurricanes in Alexandra last Friday that some tough selection decisions would have to be made, including at lock, but Evans made it clear that, regardless of his age, he wants to play the reigning champions on Friday.
“They’re the pinnacle and anyone who goes out there to play rugby at this level wants to test themselves against the best. To get that opportunity, I’d really relish that. Just have to try and put my hand up.”
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