Former All Black Liam Squire will return to bolster a young and inexperienced Highlanders squad, under new coach Tony Brown.
The blindside flanker has been back in New Zealand, recovering from a knee injury sustained in Japan earlier this year and will partially make up for the loss of openside Dillon Hunt to the Blues.
Joining Squire in the loose forward trio is Japan international Kazuki Himeno, former Crusader Billy Harmon and current international Shannon Frizell in what could be a powerful and talented backrow.
Brown is very happy with the mix of experience and youth ins his side, and feels they should offer more in attack.
"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, Connor Garden-Bachop and Thomas Umaga-Jensen come back, and combine with our new arrivals Fetuli Paea and Solomon Alaimalo."
Former Chiefs fullback Solomon Alaimalo headlines a list of eight new faces, along with Jermaine Ainsley, Hohneck, Evans, Harmon, Himeno, Fetuli Paea and Alaimalo.
The 'Landers have added depth and experience to their locking department with the capture of Evans, who recently returned from a distinguished northern hemsiphere stint with London Irish, Biarritz and Sale Sharks, and previously made two test appearances for the All Blacks.
Alaimalo heads south after scoring 17 tries in four seasons for the Chiefs, predominantly playing on the wing, but gained an early release from his contract to take up a spot on the Highlanders roster.
With a handful of outside backs gone, Alaimalo could bring valuable x-factor to a backline already lacking stars.
While the outside backs have taken a hit, the biggest loss will be the outstanding Dillon Hunt, who has returned to his hometown Blues. The loose forward topped the tackle charts in Super Rugby Aotearoa and replacing his workrate will be of major importance to Brown.
The Dunedin franchise has also lost backline depth, with Rob Thompson, Bryn Gatland, Kirisi Kuridrani, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Nabura and Josh McKay all departing.
Thompson made second-five his own over the past three years, racking up 48 appearances for the southerners, and has left to take up a contract in Japan.
One to watch
Fresh from a breakthrough Mitre 10 Cup campaign for Hawke's Bay, halfback Folau Fakatava will hope to break into the Highlanders 23, after being third choice for two previous seasons.
One question mark over Fakatava is whether he can tailor the relatively unstructured approach with the Magpies to the vastly more structured style at the next level.
He will continue to compete with Kayne Hammington to deputise behind All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith.
Possible starting XV: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Ash Dixon, Ayden Johnstone, Paripari Parkinson, Bryn Evans, Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon, Liam Squire, Aaron Smith, Josh Ioane, Jona Nareki, Patelesio Tomkinson, Fetuli Paea, Solomon Alaimalo, Michael Collins
2021 Highlanders Squad
Front Row: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Ayden Johnstone, Ethan De Groot, Jermaine Ainsley*, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Hohneck*
Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson
Locks: Paripari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Bryn Evans*
Loose Forwards: Shannon Frizell, Sione Misiloi, James Lentjes, Billy Harmon*, Kazuki Himeno*, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Liam Squire*
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava
First-Five: Josh Ioane, Mitchell Hunt
Midfield: Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Patelesio Tomkinson, Michael Collins, Fetuli Paea*, Scott Gregory
Outside Backs: Jona Nareki, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Vilimoni Koroi, Solomon Alaimalo*, Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden-Bachop, Ngatungane Punivai