The five New Zealand squads have been confirmed for next year's Super Rugby Aotearoa competition and former All Black Liam Squire is back with the Highlanders and keen to play test rugby again.
Squire last played for the team in 2019 and has been back in New Zealand rehabilitating an injury after a brief stint playing in Japan, he is expected to be back to full fitness by the time the competition starts on February 26th.
The former test blindside will join Japanese World Cup player Kazuki Himeno, Crusader Billy Harmon and James Lentjes in the loose forwards, with the latter returning from injury after missing Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020.
Squire says his passion for the game has been reignited after a year without much rugby and after previously making himself unavailable for the All Blacks, he says he wants to play international rugby again.
"That dream is definitely not over. It's something that burns in the back of my mind. I don't like to look too far ahead and nailing a starting spot in Highlanders is my first goal.
Squire could have gone back to Japan or chased a big money deal overseas, but he feels he has unfinished business in New Zealand rugby.
"It wasn't planned to come back to New Zealand so early, but I had to come back early for knee surgery. When we were locked down I was told to get my hip fixed after lock down and it was good to get that done, but it pushed my rehab back and I couldn't go back to Japan.
"I decided to stay in New Zealand after the hip surgery and how I was feeling. I felt like I had a bit left in New Zealand and staying home and playing Super Rugby again is exciting and I've sort of been refreshed and had a second wind."
Head Coach Tony Brown who will be joined by Assistant Coaches Clarke Dermody, Riki Flutey and newly appointed Defence Coach Shane Christie.
He is excited by the squad that will assemble in early January before their opening game against the Crusaders on Friday 26 February and Squire's return.
"I feel like we are bit more experienced this year - with the likes of Bryn Evans, Liam Squire and Josh Hohneck who have all played a lot of top level rugby and Jimmy Lentjes coming back and of course two very experienced captains in Aaron and Ash we have a better balance to our squad."
"We certainly have a bit more strike power in the backs as well and I'm excited to see how returning players like Sam (Gilbert), CGB (Connor Garden-Bachop) and Thomas (Umaga-Jensen) come back and combine with our new arrivals Fetuli (Paea) and Solomon (Alaimalo)"
The Higlanders have also picked up Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley, who will make his Super Rugby Aotearoa debut.
The 26 'rookies' across the five New Zealand squads, defined as those players who have signed their first full-time Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa contracts, is well down on the 46 new faces named in the 2020 squads.
The official rookies' class of 2020 is:
Highlanders (3): Sam Gilbert (Otago), Jermaine Ainsley**, Kazuki Himeno**
Crusaders (4): Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Chay Fihaki, Isaiah Punivai (Canterbury)
Chiefs (7): Ollie Norris, Simon Parker, Xavier Roe, Rivez Reihana (Waikato), Tupou Vaa'i, Josh Lord, Kaylum Boshier (Taranaki)
Hurricanes (5): Tevita Mafileo, Luke Campbell (Bay of Plenty), Ruben Love, Pepesana Patafilo (Wellington), Brayden Iose (Manawatu)
Blues (7): Soane Vikena, AJ Lam, James Lay, Zarn Sullivan (Auckland), Sam Darry (Canterbury), Taine Plumtree (Wellington), Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (Taranaki)
The rookie class of 2021 includes the youngest player, Auckland hooker Soane Vikena, who joins the Blues at 19-years, 5 months and one day old, more than 17 years younger than the oldest contracted player - two-Test All Black lock and newly minted Highlander Bryn Evans.
Vikena is one of 12 rookies to have come through the New Zealand Under 20s programme.
Evans (Hawke's Bay), who has previously played for the Blue and Hurricanes, returns to Sky Super Rugby for the first time since 2009.
Otago prop Josh Hohneck (Highlanders), and Hawke's Bay wing Lolagi Visinia (Hurricanes), also return to Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa after lengthy absences overseas.
The off-season transfer market was relatively quiet, but included some notable moves including:
First-five Bryn Gatland - to the Chiefs from the Highlanders
Outside back Solomon Alaimalo - to the Highlanders from the Chiefs
Prop Sione Mafileo - to the Chiefs from the Blues
Loose forward Billy Harmon - to the Highlanders from the Crusaders
Utility back Fetuli Paea - to the Highlanders from the Crusaders
Utility back Chase Tiatia - to the Chiefs from the Hurricanes
Utility back Jonah Lowe - to the Chiefs from the Hurricanes
Prop Nepo Laulala - to the Blues from the Chiefs
Loose forward Dillon Hunt - to the Blues from the Highlanders
A full list of the 2020 Sky Super Rugby squads is below:
Hookers: Ray Niuia, James Parsons, Soane Vikena
Props: Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, James Lay, Marcel Renata, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi
Locks: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti , Sam Darry, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Patrick Tuipulotu
Loose forwards: Blake Gibson, Dillon Hunt, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Taine Plumtree, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu
Halfbacks: Finlay Christie, Sam Nock, Jonathan Ruru
Inside backs: Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer
Midfield: TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane, Tanielu Tele'a
Outside backs: Caleb Clarke, AJ Lam, Jone Macilai-Tori, Emoni Narawa, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Zarn Sullivan, Mark Telea
Hookers: Nathan Harris, Bradley Slater, Samisoni Taukei'aho
Props: Sione Mafileo, Atunaisa Moli, Ollie Norris, Reuben O'Neill, Aidan Ross, Angus Ta'avao
Locks: Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Josh Lord, Laghlan McWhannell, Tupou Vaa'i
Loose forwards: Kaylum Boshier, Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Brown, Sam Cane, Pita Gus Sowakula, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik, Simon Parker
Halfbacks: Xavier Roe, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Brad Weber
Inside backs: Bryn Gatland, Rivez Reihana, Kaleb Trask
Midfielders: Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Bailyn Sullivan, Quinn Tupaea
Outside backs: Jonah Lowe, Damian McKenzie, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Chase Tiatia, Sean Wainui
Props: Pouri Rakete-Stones, Alex Fidow, Xavier Numia, Tyrel Lomax, Fraser Armstrong, Tevita Mafileo
Hookers: Ricky Riccitelli, Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles,
Locks: Liam Mitchell, James Blackwell, Scott Scrafton, Kane Leaupepe, Isaia Walker Leaware
Loose forwards: Du Plessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep, Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, Devan Flanders, Vaea Fifita, Brayden Iose
Halfbacks: Jamie Booth, Jonathan Taumateine, Luke Campbell
Inside backs: Jackson Garden Bachop, Simon Hickey
Midfield: Ngani Laumape, Billy Proctor, Vince Aso, Julian Savea
Outside backs: Salesi Rayasi, Wes Goosen, Jordie Barrett, Danny Toala, Peter Umaga Jensen, Lolagi Visinia, Ruben Love, Pepesana Patafilo
Props: Joe Moody, Ollie Jager, Isi Tuungafasi, George Bower, Michael Alaalatoa, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell
Hookers: Codie Taylor, Brodie McAlister, Andrew Makalio,
Locks: Scott Barrett, Quentin Strange, Mitchell Dunshea, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano
Loose forwards: Cullen Grace, Tom Sanders, Ethan Blackadder, Sione Havili, Whetu Douglas, Tom Christie
Halfbacks: Mitch Drummond, Ere Enari, Bryn Hall,
Inside backs: Richie Mo'unga, Brett Cameron
Midfield: Jack Goodhue, Fergus Burke, Braydon Ennor, Dallas McLeod,
Outside backs: Chay Fihaki, George Bridge, Manasa Mataele, Sevu Reece, David Havili, Will Jordan, Leicester Faingaanuku, Isaiah Punivai
Props: Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Ethan de Groot, Jermaine Ainsley, Josh Hohneck
Hookers: Ricky Jackson, Ash Dixon, Liam Coltman
Locks: Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Maanaki Selby-Rickit, Bryn Evans
Loose forwards: Billy Harmon, James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Sione Misiloi, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Liam Squire
Halfbacks: Kazuki Himeno, Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava
Inside backs: Josh Ioane, Mitchell Hunt
Midfield: Fetuli Paea, Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga Jensen, Ngane Punivai
Outside backs: Nehe Milner Skudder, Connor Garden Bachop, Scott Gregory, Jona Nareki, Solomon Alaimalo, Michael Collins, Sam Gilbert, Vilimoni Koroi