You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
St Peter’s College (Auckland) year 13 pupil Ajay Faleafaga has signed with the franchise.
Rugby Pass first reported the first five had inked a three-year deal with the team, waving off interest from the Blues and Crusaders in the process.
The Highlanders then confirmed the news in a statement.
It comes a week after Highlanders playmaker Josh Ioane was released a year early from his contract. He has since signed with the Chiefs.
Veteran Marty Banks was announced as returning to the team a day later, while Mitch Hunt remains the incumbent first-choice in the No10 jersey.
The Highlanders confirmed Faleafaga would be joining them in the new year, but would be brought into their high-performance programme to develop over the next three years and give him the best opportunity to one day play for the Highlanders.
"It is similar to the development programme players like Saula Ma'u and Sean Withy have undertaken over the last few years," the statement said.
"He has enrolled at Otago University next year and is undertaking a three-year arts degree minoring in criminology".
Faleafaga debuted in Auckland’s 1A First XV competition as a 15-year-old, coming in as an injury replacement and playing so well he kept the jersey.
A year later, he became one of the country’s top schoolboy prospects as a year 11 pupil, touted as an intelligent player with a quality boot.
Faleafaga told Rugby Pass the Highlanders’ culture had been a selling point and coach Tony Brown had swayed him south.
"It was definitely scary being able to have a chat with him, but he kind of had a chat with me in terms of what I can bring into the Highlanders team in two years’ time," Faleafaga said.
"He’s had a plan in place for myself, and since I’m committing to the Highlanders, we’re definitely going to work on a few things that can help me reach my goal."
It was also reported that Faleafaga was set to play for Otago in next year’s NPC.
That will likely be his first taste of regular high-level rugby.
"I think next year I might have an opportunity to play NPC, so that’ll be a really good experience,” he told Rugby Pass.
"His [Brown’s] whole plan is to just get me into an environment that puts me under pressure and test my skills and see what I’m like under pressure, and depending on how I go in next year’s season, it really depends on how I go for the following year."