Highlanders sign star Otago wing Freedom Vahaakolo

Outstanding Otago wing Freedom Vahaakolo has been snapped up by the Highlanders on a short-term contract.

Vahaakolo scored seven tries in his debut season for Otago last year and won the NZRPA Mitre 10 Young Player of the Year award, impressing his peers with his pace, power and finishing ability.

Eyebrows were therefore raised when he missed out on a full Super Rugby contract but the door has now opened in Dunedin, with Highlanders wing Sam Gilbert not expected to be available until April as he recovers from the ACL injury he suffered last year.

The Highlanders, who started their preseason training on Tuesday morning, have also handed short-term deals to Irish lock Jack Regan and rising flanker Sean Withy, both of whom played for Otago last year.

Regan, 23, will provide cover for big lock Pari Pari Parkinson, who is coming back from surgery on his troublesome ankle and is not expected to be fit until April.

Withy, 20, will cover for Japanese import Kazuki Himeno, who is stuck in Japan due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The signing of Vahaakolo, 23, will be warmly welcomed by Highlanders fans puzzled by his initial omission from the full Super Rugby squad.

The right wing made the shift from Auckland last year and tore up Dunedin club rugby, scoring several individual long-range tries that highlighted his natural ability.

He took that form into the Mitre 10 Cup and although he is far from the finished article Otago team-mates such as classy Highlanders utility Michael Collins liked what they saw.

“He’s been a great addition, and he’s a good kid too,” Collins told Stuff last year.

“He’s an awesome athlete.

“He knows his way to the tryline, and he is one of those guys that if you give him a wee but of space he’ll somehow find his way to the try line.

“He complements Jona [Nareki] and Vili [Koroi] really well, he’s that sort of power athlete, and he’s only going to get better.

“He’s played Auckland club rugby for a while, and he’s been unreal up there, and he’s come down and had a couple of weeks with the Highlanders.

”He was in there learning, and he’s been in here for the past month, and he’s made every post a winner.“

Vahaakolo did not take up rugby until high school during his turbulent teenage years, during which he was homeless for a significant period of time.

Nonetheless, he told Stuff last year that he had turned his life around and was determined to crack Super Rugby.

‘‘I’ve always believed in myself in the sense that I do feel like I have what it takes,’’ he said. ‘‘I just need to keep chipping away.”

It is not uncommon for players who initially missed out on Super Rugby contracts to go on to make big impressions.

Karl Tu’inukuafe, Sevu Reece and Tupou Vaa’i all played for the All Blacks within 12 months of missing out on full Super Rugby contracts, and there could be an early opening for Vahaakolo on the Highlanders’ right wing.

The Highlanders also have Nehe Milner-Skudder, Solomon Alaimalo and Ngantunane Punivai as options for Waisake Naholo’s old No 14 jersey, but star recruit Alaimalo is understood to be targeting the No 15 spot.

The Highlanders get Super Rugby Aotearoa under way with a home game against the Crusaders on February 26, but Vahaakolo, Regan and Withy could be given a chance to stake their claims in the preseason fixtures against the Crusaders in Temuka on February 12 and the Hurricanes in Alexandra on February 19.