Gone are the days of Gareth Evans returning home for the university holidays to lug beer crates to fund his studies.
When the Highlanders Super Rugby loosie arrives at his family's Havelock North home in August it will be to begin a two-year ITM Cup contract with the Hawke's Bay Magpies. Hawke's Bay Rugby Union CEO Mike Bishop was thrilled to announce the signing of the Napier Boys' High School product and former Hawke's Bay age group rep yesterday.
"Having recently lost Mike Coman to an overseas contract we are very pleased that Gareth will be returning to his home province for ITM Cup rugby," Bishop said referring to the fact former Magpies captain Coman is playing for Edinburgh in Scotland.
Evans, 22, who played 33 first class games for the Otago Razorbacks while completing a degree in environmental management at Otago University from 2011 until last year, said it wasn't a hard decision to return home.
"I've really enjoyed my time at Otago Rugby, but the opportunity to return to my home province and wear the black and white jersey that my brothers Bryn and Rhys have is really exciting. I grew up as a Magpies fan and can't wait for the opportunity to run out in front of my family and the fans at McLean Park," Evans said.
A key factor in his decision was the departure of Coman as well as former Maori All Black and Hurricanes loosie Karl Lowe, who will be Japan-based from April. "I don't mind whether I play 8 or 6 for the Magpies," Evans said.
His two-test All Black brother Bryn, who is England-based, also played a major role in Evans' decision to return to the Bay and the family's Havelock North club.
"I went over to the UK to see Bryn in November when the ITM Cup season finished and he gave me some good advice, which suggested Hawke's Bay would be a good option."
Evans, the toughest of the three Evans brothers, an advantage of being the youngest, was among the Razorbacks best players when the Magpies pipped them 20-19 in the September 1 Ranfurly Shield challenge and in the October 20 Championship semifinal, which the Magpies won 29-24. He is expected to be even stronger after completing the first season of his two-season deal with the Highlanders.
"The first week of pre-season training was tougher than anything I've experienced in the past ... the legs were a bit sore. But it's been great learning from these professional guys," Evans said during a lunch break at training yesterday.
"It's hard to believe I came down here to study and my rugby career just took off."
A member of a formidable 8, 9 and 10 combo in the 2009 NBHS 1st XV with halfback Brad Weber and first five-eighth Ihaia West, Evans, said he is looking forward to playing with Maori All Black West again. Weber is contracted with Waikato until the end of the 2014 season at least but it is likely to only be a matter of time before the trio, who were Hawke's Bay under-18 teammates, play in the same Magpies team together.
Evans said Highlanders wider training group members Richard Buckman and Ged Robinson had been schooling him up on what he can expect in the Magpies' environment. While Super Rugby commitments will prevent him playing club rugby on a regular basis he will jump at the opportunity to play for the villagers should it arise.
"Obviously the immediate goal will be to make the most of my opportunities during the Highlanders pre-season games. Then I want to try and make the 22 when the season starts," Evans explained.
His long-term goal is to become the second member of his family to play for the All Blacks.
"One thing at a time though," Evans said maintaining his realistic approach to his career.
Magpies head coach Craig Philpott was equally as excited as Bishop about Evans signing.
"Gareth is a talent on the rise and will add real depth to our loose forward stocks," Philpott said.
Evans arrives home on Friday for a two-week holiday before returning to Dunedin to resume Highlanders pre-season training on January 5.
"Yes it will be a change to come home and relax instead of to lug beer crates," Evans added before answering a yell from Highlanders' head coach Jamie Joseph to resume training.
This Highlanders' rookie knows it doesn't pay to be late to one of Joseph's sessions.