Former All Blacks captain Kieran Read will play for his beloved Counties Manukau Steelers during the upcoming Mitre 10 Cup season.
Read left New Zealand after last year's Rugby World Cup campaign to play with Japanese side Toyota Verblitz , but returned in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 34-year-old will return to Japan for the next Top League season, but he's been given permission to play for Counties in this year's provincial competition, due to kick off on September 11.
Read grew up in Papakura, but moved south to launch his standout career with Canterbury and the Crusaders.
Read is expected to be available for the Steelers' opening match against defending champions Tasman and will likely face Bay of Plenty in a pre-season match on September 4.
"While I played a lot of my representative rugby in Christchurch, my roots will always be in Counties Manukau," says Read.
"I remember going along to games in Pukekohe as a kid and while I've been aligned with the province in recent years, my All Blacks commitments have meant I've never actually had the chance to pull on the red, black and white hoops in a Mitre 10 Cup game.
"I'm really excited about the upcoming season, and about the prospect of playing provincial rugby in front of my family and friends at Navigation Homes Stadium in the community I grew up in."
Read was registered as a Counties Manukau player from 2017-19, after a decade with Canterbury, but he only featured in one pre-season game when returning from back injury.
The 128-test veteran hasn't played any rugby since returning home from Japan.
"Obviously it's been a while since I've had a run, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck in again," says Read.
"I've had some good conversations with Steelers head coach Tai Lavea and I'm really excited about the squad he's been able to assemble.
"If I can help in any way with these up-and-coming young rugby players, that would be fantastic too."
Counties Manukau Rugby Football Union chief executive Aaron Lawton believes Read is a massive signing, not only for the Steelers, but provincial rugby.
"One of the positives in what has been a tough year with COVID-19 has been the real resurgence of fan interest in rugby again," he says.
"It's also meant some amazingly talented rugby players have found themselves back in New Zealand and itching to play.
"Never in a million years would we have thought, at the start of the year, when we were beginning to put together our squad, that a player of Kieran's calibre would be available.
"We are beyond excited about having him on deck this year and are hoping our rugby community really get behind him and the Steelers."
Counties will ease him into the campaign, with Read short on match fitness.
"It has been great being able to train without any pressures of training for rugby specifically," Read said.
"I have been doing lots of running and, like lots of people, getting a wee gym set up in the garage.
"I have been focusing on my rugby training over the last few weeks and the contact, which I will be building up over the next few weeks, to lead into that first game.
"That is going to be the thing I will need to really shore up on again, getting the body used to getting hit, because it has been quite nice not having to do that over the last six months!"