Liam Squire ready for Highlanders and All Blacks return

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

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