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Wheeler (27) has signed for the Suntory team in the Japan Top league for next season and will not be lining up for the Tasman Makos in the Mitre 10 Cup next month.
When his deal to go to Japan was announced in May, Wheeler said he was keen to stay with the Highlanders for next year.
Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark confirmed yesterday Wheeler had been signed to play for the Highlanders in 2017.
Wheeler had been given permission by Suntory to return for the Super rugby competition and, depending on how Suntory goes in the Japanese league, may be back to play in the first game of next year's competition.
Wheeler is a key member of the Highlanders, both on and off the field.
The lock first played Super rugby for the Crusaders but moved south in 2013. He was hindered by injury in his first year in Dunedin and was used as a blindside flanker.
The following year Wheeler moved into lock and has stayed there, being one of the more useful second-rowers in New Zealand.
Wheeler is also a big contributor to team culture off the field and is a popular member of the team.
Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said it was great to get Wheeler's signature for next season.
Winger Patrick Osborne will play for the Kubota Spears in the Japan Top league next season and then also return to play for the Highlanders.
The team is not concerned over the pair having too big a workload as the players get a big pre-season in Japan and the playing season lasts a little more than three months.
Clark said the side had now signed 31 of its 38 players for next season which was a good indication of continuity within the team for next year under new head coach Tony Brown.
Winger Tevita Li is also joining from the Blues.
The rest of the players for next year will be picked from the domestic competition, starting next month.
Meanwhile, Clark said there were still plenty of details to get through before the Highlanders were confirmed as being part of a new 10s competition set for Brisbane in February.
Fairfax Media reported over the weekend Duco Events was set to officially launch a 10s event next month. It is to be played at Suncorp Stadium on the weekend of February 10-11 next year.
The event was set to involve all 10 of the New Zealand and Australian Super rugby sides, as well as the likes of French outfit Toulon and Japanese side Panasonic.
The tournament had the support of local and state government in Queensland and would have significant prize money.
Clark said yesterday there was still some work to be done and details to be ironed out.
Should the event take place, it would fill up one of the weekends used for a pre-season game.
A game of 10s has five forwards and five backs and is played in 10-minutes halves.