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Buxton Popoali'i was withdrawing from the squad to focus on recovering from heart surgery planned for this month, the Highlanders confirmed yesterday.
The effervescent outside back has a long-standing heart condition, and recent tests determined he needs further surgery.
''Buxton will take a break from all rugby this year, to focus on his recovery,'' Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said.
''While we, and Buxton himself, are devastated at this news, it is clear he needs to focus entirely on his own health and wellbeing.
"Buxton is currently feeling and doing well and our medical staff are managing his care.
''Buxton is a very popular member of the Highlanders and we are all supporting him through what is a very difficult time.''
Popoali'i (24), who came south three years ago, and his family had asked for privacy and he was unavailable for interviews.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Last year, Popoali'i revealed he had an operation for his heart condition in 2006.
It was discovered he was suffering from rheumatic fever, causing an inflammation of the heart muscle.
A pig valve was inserted into his heart, and he was able to manage the condition with ''a jab once a year'' and ''a couple of pills every day''.
The Highlanders are left with just one specialist winger, Patrick Osborne, in their squad, and it seems certain they will need to scour the professional ranks for a replacement.