A huge blow ... there's no other way to describe Hurricane Ricky Riccitelli's departure from the Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby team.
The 2015 world champion Baby Black was a key figure in one of the best performing areas of the Magpies' disappointing 2016 Mitre 10 Cup campaign, the frontrow. Riccitelli, a regular hooker who made phenomenal progress as a loosehead prop, has decided to return to his home province of Taranaki.
"It was a pretty tough decision to make. But it came down to what is best for my career at this time," Riccitelli, 21, said.
"I want to make the All Blacks and with Rhys leaving Taranaki to play overseas I've got an opportunity to be the No 1 hooker in the Taranaki team," Riccitelli said referring to former Chief and Hawke's Bay under-20 player Rhys Marshall.
"Loosehead prop wasn't my preferred position but I did the best job I could in that role. I've got to thank the likes of Brendon Edmonds and our scrum coach Campbell Johnstone for what I've learnt during my two seasons in the Bay ... it's been a good experience," the Durban-born Riccitelli said.
"Ash Dixon is an awesome Magpies player and captain. What I've learnt off him has been priceless."
A more than capable replacement for All Black rake and Hurricanes co-captain Dane Coles when he was injured during the business end of the Hurricanes 2016 season, Riccitelli, said the Canes' summer training programme had gone well in the buildup to their first pre-season match against the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. The former Havelock North club player had nine first-class games for the Canes last year.
"We've done heaps of fitness and started contact stuff a fortnight ago. I'm looking forward to playing at the Brisbane 10s too."
Like his former Francis Douglas Memorial College schoolmates Logan Crowley and Jordie Barrett, Riccitelli, has signed a two-year contract with the Bulls.
"I'm very excited to head home and play for the Port Taranaki Bulls. I've always wanted to play for Taranaki and to give back in some way to a province that's given so much to me. To be able to wear the amber and black jersey and play for my family, friends and the community is awesome. I'm also really excited to have a chance to be a part of the proud Taranaki Rugby legacy," Riccitelli said.
Bulls head coach and Maori All Blacks mentor Colin Cooper said his union was thrilled to bring another local player back to don amber and black.
"It's great to bring another local player home of Ricky's calibre, who has both Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup experience. Our drive and vision as a union is to continue attracting and retaining outstanding rugby players. A big part of that is bringing our locally grown players home like our recent signings in Ricky, Jordie Barrett and Logan Crowley to represent the Port Taranaki Bulls.
"We're really pleased to have Ricky in the team following on from Rhys Marshall's departure to Munster last year. It's great to bring that experience in and have him fight it out for a starting spot alongside the strong group of players already here in Taranaki," Cooper said.
Riccitelli moved with family to New Zealand at age 4 settling in Oakura. He is equally adept on the cricket field as the rugby field and spent four years in his college's 1st XI.
The former Central Districts under-19 and Taranaki age-grade cricket rep played for his college's 1st XV rugby team for two years and in 2012 was named the college's Sportsman of the Year. Riccitelli is juggling his professional rugby commitments with his studies towards a Bachelor of Science in Geology.
"While we're sorry to see him go we understand his reasons for leaving. Ricky has given us outstanding service during his two seasons with the team," Magpies co-coach Craig Philpott said.
Last season's other regular starting prop, Maori All Black and Hurricane Ben May, was contracted to the Magpies for 2016 and it is not yet known where he will be playing after the Super season. It would be devastating to the Magpies' quest to return to the Premiership to lose May at the same time as Riccitelli.