James O'Connor's quest to join the Chiefs next year is over before it began with Rugby Australia blocking his request for a release.
The Herald understands the Wallabies playmaker approached the Chiefs about moving to New Zealand next year, citing a strong desire to test his skills in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
O'Connor's parents are New Zealanders, and he holds a Kiwi passport after spending the early stages of his life here, so he viewed the potential move to the Chiefs as a homecoming of sorts.
The 30-year-old returned to Australia from the Sale Sharks in 2019, signing a two-and-a-half-year deal with Rugby Australia and the Queensland Reds, having not played for the Wallabies since 2013.
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After impressing from first five-eighth with the Reds and Wallabies this season O'Connor sounded out several All Blacks about moving to the Chiefs.
The Chiefs were led to believe a release was a mere formality but Rugby Australia have since rejected O'Connor's request, leaving the Chiefs with Kaleb Trask, Bryn Gatland, Rivez Reihana and Damian McKenzie as first-five options next year.
Chiefs chief executive Michael Collins is disappointed the Hamilton-based franchise missed out on signing O'Connor for next season.
"James approached us and we were keen to sign him but at the end of the day we couldn't get it across the line," Collins said. "It's an opportunity for another player so we've moved on pretty quick."
The Chiefs have instead signed former Hamilton Boys' High first XV captain Rameka Poihipi as the final member of their 2021 squad.
The 22-year-old midfielder made his provincial debut for Canterbury and maiden Super Rugby appearance with the Crusaders in 2018, and also featured off the bench for New Zealand Māori in their victory over Moana Pasifika earlier this month.
Poihipi joins fellow Chiefs midfielders Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Quinn Tupaea and Bailyn Sullivan.