After another injury-wrecked year, Colin Slade has rejoined a bulging All Black five-eighths battle.
The 25-year-old was tucked in behind Daniel Carter before he tore groin muscles at the World Cup and then broke his ankle early into last year's Super 15 series.
As he went through more exhaustive rehab, Slade watched Aaron Cruden, then Beauden Barrett and Tom Taylor nose in behind Carter on the preferred five-eighths list.
Breaking back into that group is on Slade's radar but well in the distance as he first contemplates the Highlanders' programme.
"I won't really know how I am until I get back into the thick of it," he said at yesterday's Super 15 launch.
"I don't think it will hold me back too much, but speaking to others, they say it takes two or three games. That is the unknown."
Slade has been concentrating on getting plenty of kilometres into his legs, working on regaining full strength on his left peg and on his skills.
"There are great young kids coming into the game, but I would go mad if I worried about that," he said.
"I have not tortured myself. I will get my chance when I get out there, and that is what is motivating me.
"It can be daunting if they raise the bar but it means I have to rise to that challenge.
"A lot of guys might have lost belief in my ability but I certainly haven't and I am ready to get out there and prove a point that I can come back from this."
Slade has stalled at 10 tests, Cruden has now played 20 and Barrett five. Taylor was the intriguing replacement pick in the illness-ravaged last week in Britain.
Seven games but just two full matches for the Highlanders in the past two years is not a substantial job application sheet for the All Blacks.
But the Highlanders five-eighths is not in a hurry.
He wants to start when he is ready and when coach Jamie Joseph wants him.
"I was at rock bottom but now I want to prove I am a Super rugby player again and then see what happens after that. It is all about small steps," said Slade.
Hurricanes No 8 Victor Vito has been rehabbing a medial knee ligament in his off-season and rates himself good to go.
Losing Cory Jane to injury was a huge blow and there was no way the Canes would catch out any opponents this season.
"Everyone knows who we are and there will be no buttoning off. Any underdog tag has worn off and we need to learn to build leads rather than play catchup."
The arrival of Ben Franks had bumped up the scrum content and general purpose about the pack.
Super Aussie start
Rebels v Force
Melbourne, 9.40pm Friday
Brumbies v Reds
Canberra, 9.40pm Saturday.
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