Brendon O'Connor, the bloke who led the Hawke's Bay rugby team to victory in their last successful Ranfurly Shield challenge, will be back in Magpies colours this season.
The Hawke's Bay Rugby Union this morning announced the return of loosie O'Connor and the signing of Māori All Black and Hurricanes lock Isaia Walker-Leawere on a three-year contract. Both players hail from Poverty Bay and are Gisborne Boys' High School products.
"Brendon is an extremely popular figure around the Bay for the commitment and uncompromising standards he set while playing here between 2013 and 2015 and will be fondly remembered for leading the Magpies during their successful shield tenure. It is fantastic to have a player of his professionalism and character in our leadership mix for the upcoming Mitre 10 Cup campaign," union CEO Jay Campbell said.
O'Connor, 29, has been plying his trade with the Leicester Tigers in the English Premiership since leaving the Magpies and has played an integral part, playing 73 games over the four years with the Tigers. A former Blues and Crusaders Super player, O'Connor played 34 first class games for the Magpies and scored 16 tries.
He was a key member of the Mike Coman-captained Magpies who won the Ranfurly Shield off Otago in 2013 and gave an inspirational two-try performance when he led the Magpies to another taste of Shield glory in the 2014 challenge against Counties-Manukau.
Under O'Connor's leadership the Magpies retained the Shield in 10 successful defences before losing it to a Waikato side for which current Magpies halfback Brad Weber scored a hattrick for. In his final outing before heading to the Northern Hemisphere O'Connor captained the Magpies to a thrilling 26-25 win against Wellington in the 2015 Championship final.
The former Napier Pirate Rugby and Sports club player was a member of the world championship-winning 2009 New Zealand under-20 team.
"We're extremely honoured he chose to return to the Magpies over many other unions who were chasing him for his services. He'll certainly add to our depth across our loose forwards and provide vital leadership in what looms as an exciting and tough season ahead," Magpies head coach Mark Ozich said.
"Playing and living in Hawke's Bay was a real highlight in my playing career and I'm excited to be able to return and play in the black and white hoops. I will be doing everything asked of me to help the Magpies and secure a successful campaign," O'Connor said in an email to Magpies headquarters today.
Walker-Leawere, 22, made his Hurricanes debut last year and is now a regular member of the Canes' playing 23. He will arrive in the Bay with 22 first class games for the Wellington Lions on his playing CV.
"I'm really excited for a new challenge with Hawke's Bay, challenging the experienced guys in the team for a starting spot and helping the Magpies win trophies. I've heard through my mates within the Canes and Māori teams about how much fun the environment is and I am looking forward to being part of it," Walker-Leawere, a son of former Fiji lock Kele Leawere, said.
"The move to the Bay also helps me get closer to my family in Gisborne and also my partner's family based in Waimarama,'' he added.
''It's great to have Isaia commit to the Magpies. He is a powerful ball-carrying forward who will complement others in our forward pack well. The fact that he can play lock and loose forward is a real bonus and we are looking forward to adding his abilities into a very capable team. It's great that Izzie's parents and family will be in closer proximity to him and having them here during home games will no doubt make these games even more special,'' Ozich said.
Campbell confirmed his union tried to secure Walker-Leawere in their academy when he was a raw-boned promising talent at Gisborne Boys' High but sometimes the timings and circumstances don't align.
"We certainly welcome him with open arms, now that he wishes to make Hawke's Bay his home. That Izzie and Choona [O'Connor's nickname] have committed to Hawke's Bay Rugby illustrates the great culture and environment that our coaching and management staff are creating,'' Campbell added.
O'Connor is expected to return to New Zealand from travelling through Europe at the end of the month and be available for the Magpies pre-season game against Waikato in Taupō on July 26. Walker-Leawere will report for Magpies training once his Hurricanes commitments end.