Bay of Plenty's muted build-up to next month's ITM Cup national provincial rugby campaign took a significant and timely step forward yesterday with two high-profile signatures.
Highlanders and Southland midfielder Kendrick Lynn has signed to play for the province, although he's primarily being viewed as a wing/fullback utility, while 29-year-old former Queensland Reds centre Mali Kefu has also been snapped up by the title aspirants for one season, hot on the heels of his older brother and former Wallaby Steve who played for the Steamers last year.
Lynn, 29, helped Southland to two Ranfurly Shield wins in his 61 games for the Stags, playing at centre in both victories over Canterbury, but told the Southland Times he was after a fresh challenge following a disappointing campaign with the Highlanders this year where he struggled to get any game time with the franchise when he came back from a neck injury.
Kefu played a season for the Queensland Reds in 2003 but has been in France since 2004, with the last seven seasons at Sonny Bill Williams' former club Toulon.
Lynn, who is from Waikato, had been looking overseas but Bay of Plenty heard he was available and jumped. Steamers coach Kevin Schuler said yesterday he was surprised at the pace with which both players committed to the province.
"It has all happened at very short notice - subsequent to that we heard he was available, made contact but thought he'd take two or three weeks to think about it, yet he came back to us in a couple of days.
"Mali comes from a good family stable but signed at short notice, with our connection to him obviously coming through his brother."
Schuler confirmed they'd had tentative talks with hulking All Blacks wing Hosea Gear several weeks ago, although the 28-year-old, who seems back in favour at national level, hasn't made a commitment yet to any ITM Cup team and is likely to be picked for the squad to play in the Rugby Championship, limiting his provincial availability.
"We've put an offer to him but haven't heard back. He would be a strategic investment given he's highly likely to be an All Black [at the time of the ITM Cup], but if we did manage to get him for a cameo handful of games at no expense to us it'd be great."
Schuler was at pains to point out the double backline signing shouldn't be seen as a snub to the club players he and assistant John Walters had been looking at, with several also used in recent games for the Wasps XV.
But with fullback Toby Arnold (knee reconstruction) and wing Jason Hona (operations on both hips) sidelined and former Steamers midfielder Brett Mather recovering from a broken leg, there were obvious gaps that needed filling.
"The need for a genuine utility in the squad [Lynn] became very apparent and the fact is we don't have a player locally we believe can be a starter across several positions. Someone like Lynn, who started his career at 10, played 15 and on the wing and more recently as a midfielder, who is available was too good to ignore.
"He'll primarily fill a wing/fullback role but gives us centre cover as well. I think the value of a good utility has been proven in a whole bunch of tournaments in recent years and players comfortable in several positions are a huge asset to a team."
Schuler said it was significant that Bay of Plenty had contracted Kefu and Lynn to just the 2012 season.
"For me that's good. Short term we've seen a gap and have two off-the-shelf, ready-to-go quality footballers. But we're still committed to having guys we're bringing through our own system. We needed these couple of guys to maintain our level of play and put an experienced backline out on the field but that doesn't change the commitment to bringing the young guys through."
Hona, who'd had both hips operated on, wouldn't be sighted on the field this season but the immediate future of Mather, who is living in Dunedin, and national sevens star Toby Arnold was more clouded.
"Bluey [Mather] will be in a moon boot until the end of this month but if anyone can get back early it'll be him ... but it was a significant snap of the leg so as well as getting physically right, he needs to get back to being comfortable and confident to play on it.
"Toby is a guy with a phenomenal attitude who has taken the same attitude to his rehab, but it's too much of an unknown whether he'll be August, September or later. He needs to rehab properly bearing in mind that his sevens commitments will be part of his thinking."
Steve Kefu was a solid investment as a midfielder last season and Schuler has similar expectations around his 1.8m, 104kg sibling.
"Anyone who plays professionally in France for seven years and survives that environment knows how to play rugby."