Former All Blacks captain Kieran Read has signed to play for Counties Manukau in this year's Mitre 10 Cup and he is expected to be available for round one selection.
The Herald understands an agreement has been reached with Read's Japanese club Toyota Verblitz, where former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is director of rugby, for the 34-year-old to play the New Zealand provincial season.
Read has told those close to him he will play for Counties Manukau and an official announcement is expected in days.
Hot on the heels of the supremely successful Super Rugby Aotearoa, Read's presence for Counties Manukau promises to be a major drawcard that will give the southern Auckland union and national provincial competition a significant shot in the arm.
Providing Covid-19 restrictions ease in Auckland, Read is expected to travel from Christchurch and link with Counties Manukau for their opening match against Tasman in Pukekohe on Saturday, September 12.
With All Blacks available for the first two Mitre 10 Cup rounds, Read could feature alongside in-form Blues flanker Dalton Papalii and Chiefs prop Nepo Laulala for Counties Manukau, while Sevu Reece, Shannon Frizell, Will Jordan, David Havili and Tyrel Lomax could be among those in the stacked Tasman side.
Read made 127 appearances for the All Blacks over 11 years, including 52 as captain, before retiring from test rugby following last year's World Cup.
He adds to a host of former All Blacks who have returned home or abandoned foreign contracts amid the global pandemic to instead rekindle nostalgic sentiments by pulling on their home colours with their respective provinces.
That includes Nehe Milner-Skudder (Manawatu) and Liam Messam (Waikato), while Julian Savea is expected to soon sign with North Harbour, Auckland or Wellington.
Whether Read will feature in all 10 regular-season Mitre 10 Cup games is yet to be determined but he is essentially available for the full campaign — through to November 28 — after gaining Toyota's blessing to play.
Staggering insurance fees proved a major barrier in blocking other high-profile former All Blacks — the likes of Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Liam Squire and Waisake Naholo — from playing for their former Super Rugby and provincial sides this year after foreign leagues were forced to cease.
In a time of financial duress, the cost of insuring these existing overseas contracts was too much for some teams to bear, although the Chiefs are understood to have paid around $12,000 to ensure Aaron Cruden could play this Super season before he joins Japanese side Kobe Steelers.
With Toyota giving their consent for Read to play for Counties Manukau, however, it is unclear whether an insurance payment has been required on this occasion.
While Read made 156 appearances and helped the Crusaders to four Super Rugby titles, he is proud of his South Auckland roots.
Before shifting to Canterbury, Read was head boy at Rosehill College in Papakura. He played age-grade rugby for Counties Manukau, grew up watching Jonah Lomu and Joeli Vidiri carve up on the wings for the local province, and his parents live in Drury.
Read's strong desire to now give back to the Counties Manukau province is epitomised by the fact he is believed to have accepted his smallest contract since first breaking into the professional ranks.
Read has once previously appeared for Counties Manukau — during a pre-season match in 2018 at the Manurewa club against Tasman in his return from back surgery — but this Mitre 10 Cup campaign will mark his official debut for the province in what is sure to be an occasion close to his heart.