Waikato welcome back Uhila

Loni Uhila hasn't seen the sights or smells of France, Europe or the northern hemisphere.

But the giant prop will soon be ripping up turf on French soil after Waikato's Mitre 10 Cup season ends for a two-year deal with France's Top 14 champions, Clermont Auvergne.

Uhila is back in Hamilton for another stint with his beloved Mooloos before heading overseas after spending the last two Super Rugby seasons with the Hurricanes.

The 'Tongan Bear' returns to Waikato's front row in their only change of personnel for Friday's visit of Counties Manukau after their opening round defeat (34-29) in Taranaki.

It's been a "pretty frustrating" time for the 28-year-old since his last Mooloos outing against Auckland at Eden Park last September.

Waikato won a thrilling encounter 35-32 where Uhila scored a try, spent 10 minutes in the sinbin, and then broke his arm which ended his year.

His luck with injuries didn't improve in his second Hurricanes season after winning the franchise's maiden Super Rugby title in his first.

Uhila was dogged by a persistent calf problem but he managed to shake it off and feature in their final few games before their semi-final defeat (44-29) to the Lions in Johannesburg ended their reign as champions.

"It didn't finish how we wanted, but I'm proud of the way the boys fought and we couldn't have done no more," Uhila said. 

"We gave it our all, all the way to the last day and I've been pretty proud to be a Hurricane."

Uhila's agent was contacted after the 2016 Super Rugby final and his move to Clermont fell into place before it was announced last December.

He doesn't speak a word of French but his wife and kids have been learning bits and bobs ahead of the "big move".

One thing would bug the big man in France should it happen again. Uhila has never played finals footy with Waikato since his provincial debut in 2012. 

Waikato's last finals appearance was in 2011 when they finished as runners-up to Canterbury and it's been five premiership seasons of finishing fifth or sixth ever since.

"I think this is the right season to get back into it," Uhila said.

"Dwayne Sweeney and the coaches have done a very good job in motivating the boys. We'll make the Waikato province proud."

Uhila replaces Latu Talakai at loosehead prop as Waikato's pack shuffles for their first match at FMG Stadium Waikato in 2017.

Cambridge brothers Mitch and Luke Jacobson start together for Waikato for the first time; Jordan Manihera shifts to No 8; and James Tucker starts at lock ahead of Leva Fifita.

The only change in the back line sees Tyler Campbell promoted to the right wing in favour of Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara.

Waikato's clash with Counties draws one odd similarity from last year because it's their first of three matches in 10 days again.

Counties won 35-26 in their encounter in Pukekohe last September before reaching the semi-finals ahead of Waikato, who had to settle for sixth after claiming maximum points from their final two matches of 2016.

Auckland (away) and Tasman (home) come next week on Wednesday and Sunday and Waikato's one change to the 23 that lost in Taranaki last Saturday could be shaken up significantly with those contests in mind.


What: Waikato v Counties Manukau

Where, when: FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton on Friday at 7:45pm

Waikato: Zac Guildford, Tyler Campbell, Bailyn Sullivan, Dwayne Sweeney (c), Sevu Reece, Sam Christie, Pele Cowley; Jordan Manihera, Mitch Jacobson, Luke Jacobson, James Tucker, Jacob Skeen, Sefo Kautai, Hame Faiva, Loni Uhila. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Ayden Johnstone, Joshua Iosefa-Scott, Leva Fifita, Adam Burn, Harrison Levien, Tevita Taufui, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara.



Photo by: GETTY IMAGES Caption: Waikato welcome back Loni Uhila for Counties Manukau clash on Friday.