Anthony Boric's unscheduled sabbatical, where he had surgery on his neck, worked at a "real job" and visited the site of his family's Croatian origins, has inspired him in his return to rugby.
The World Cup-winning All Black is training with a young Blues squad where 62 games make him the fourth most experienced Super Rugby player behind Keven Mealamu, new captain Ali Williams and Piri Weepu. Boric's last game was against the Bulls 10 months ago.
New Blues coach Sir John Kirwan says if Boric proves his fitness, he'll give him a mandate to help lead the team: "I don't want to put any pressure on Anthony; he's a fantastic Blues man who has come through a big injury. He's shown incredible courage and is on target, but I want to make sure when he comes back, he's back to stay. We planned to be without him. We've got five locks [Williams, Liaki Moli, Ronald Raaymakers and Culum Retallick are the others]; we did that on purpose because we weren't sure when AB would be ready."
Boric acknowledges the extra responsibility as a senior player: "I don't really feel 29, but looking around and seeing younger guys makes you feel older. It is important for me to lead by example and bring a bit of my experience to light.
First of all, I want to get through a full contact training, make a few tackles and play a game."
Friday's training in the sun at Unitec took its toll. Vats of cold sports drinks were supped after players sweltered through defence training and shuttle runs. However, as thirsts were quenched, a glance to the lower field revealed Boric's 2m frame engaged in a tackle session with flanker Brendon O'Connor. The emphasis was on finding the optimum head placement and body position for Boric's neck. The determination of the 24-test All Black was clear.
"I'm feeling pretty good now, almost five months since the surgery, and I'm gradually building into the contact work. I now need to get involved in some tackles and scrum training, basically things that can potentially niggle it."
Before treating the bulging disc around his C5 and C6 vertebrae, Boric consulted former professionals Olo Brown, Derren Witcombe and Dave Gibson, who had been similarly afflicted. Boric chose disc replacement surgery over fusing the vertebrae.
"I'm the only one in the country who has had that done but a couple of English players went through it. The fusion option makes sure it all comes together and is rock solid. They take bone from your hip, put it all in and lock it in place. The problem is it can put pressure on the discs either side. A replacement should work like a normal disc."
Boric's time away from rugby gave him perspective on the rigours of a rugby-playing life: "To be honest, I wouldn't say I was desperate to return. I weighed up whether it was worth throwing in the towel. The main reason I had surgery was to feel confident that I have got a good neck and wouldn't have any pain going forward."
The down time saw Boric pursue the engineering career he put on hold for rugby.
"I enjoyed a couple of months at project management and construction companies. I worked on sites building warehouses, sat in an office doing quantity surveying and oversaw some structural designs.
"It was rewarding being involved in a real job and seeing the practical results rather than being at university studying from books."
Boric also seized the chance to take a rare winter holiday, something the New Zealand rugby season usually makes impossible. The highlight was Croatia, the home from which his family emigrated before setting up their 85-acre orchard at Kumeu in 1942.
"I have family in a small town halfway between Split and Dubrovnik and on the island of Hvar [in the Adriatic Sea]. It was nice to visit my relatives, they turn it on - I was definitely well fed. Hvar was probably my favourite spot. I did a cruise for a week with a few mates. Being out in the islands jumping off a boat and swimming for hours was so peaceful.
"With rugby, you travel a lot but you've always got a schedule to keep. Over there, I could chill out for a while."By Andrew Alderson Email Andrew