Ali Williams has watched the All Blacks go to a new level but insists he still has what it takes to force his way back into the team.
The four-match tour of Europe, which starts with a test against Scotland in Edinburgh on November 12, is his ultimate goal, and although he has a big supporter in All Black coach Steve Hansen, the 31-year-old Williams is running out of time to prove himself.
He managed 60 minutes for Auckland against North Harbour in the ITM Cup on Sunday - his first game since appearing for the All Blacks in the second test against Ireland in Christchurch on June 16.
A knee operation straight after that narrow victory at AMI Stadium put him out for almost four months and he has a maximum of three games left this season if Auckland make the final.
He is unlikely to be considered for the third Bledisloe Cup test against Australia in Brisbane a week on Saturday.
In his favour, however, is the fact that the All Blacks are likely to take four locks to Europe, and, with few others putting their hands up, that puts 75-test veteran Williams in the frame next to Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick despite his lack of game time and ordinary Super rugby form with the Blues.
Asked yesterday if he felt he was still a contender for the All Blacks, his answer was short and to the point.
"Yes, I wouldn't be playing if I didn't."
Humour and Williams are comfortable bedfellows - he described his feelings on returning to play at North Harbour Stadium as akin to a "fat kid in a candy store" - but there is no doubt the long layoff recuperating from an injured knee was difficult and tested it to the fullest. And this after two serious Achilles tendon injuries over the past few years.
"There are always times when you think, 'What am I doing this for?' but the reality of rugby comes through - and that is that you enjoy what you do and a lot of it more than anything is the camaraderie with your mates and you do put some pretty good bonds together with a lot of guys," he said.
"That's the thing I miss, being around my mates."
Williams said he had not had a lot of contact with the All Black coaches recently, although his rehabilitation had been monitored from onhigh.
"In terms of contact, I'm in the same boat as everyone else. You've got to perform and from there they will talk to you.
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- APNZBy Patrick McKendry Email Patrick