Rene Ranger is on the cusp of playing his first game since April last year after being given the all-clear to play for the Blues in their pre-season match against the Rebels in Pakuranga on Thursday.
After getting an early exit from French club Montpellier, Ranger returned to New Zealand with the aim of playing for North Harbour in the NPC before joining the Blues, but instead underwent neck surgery.
Blues coach Tana Umaga has been cautious about putting a time-frame on the return of the former All Black midfielder but today said Ranger was set to play the Melbourne-based Rebels at Bell Park in a match free to the public and which kicks off at 5.30pm.
"He's good to go," Umaga said. "He's probably not where he needs to be in terms of being Super Rugby ready but we've still got three weeks to go [until the season proper starts]. He's not far off. Obviously he hasn't played since April last year, so it's a long time.
"He's just been improving every week since we've been fully in contact. We've had two good hit-outs contact-wise these last couple of weeks... he's got through those and he's grown in his confidence since his injury - he's looking good."
Ranger's influence in the midfield today as the Blues went through their paces at their new training ground in the middle of Auckland's Alexandra Park raceway was obvious for all to see. Running outside George Moala, who appears to be even more powerful in the upper body than last year, Ranger adds both experience and an added fear factor at centre.
Both will present significant challenges to opposition midfields this year.
Ranger played only six tests before cutting his All Black career short to travel to France, but with Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith now plying their trade in that country, the 29-year-old still has higher honours as an achievable goal. Moala, a 25-year-old powerhouse who scored a try on his All Blacks debut in Samoa last year, is in a similar category.
Captain Jerome Kaino, a double World Cup winner who returned to Blues training at the start of January following the birth of his third child in December, said Ranger's impact on a young squad has been immediate.
"Rene's Rene," Kaino said. "He's still loud and the clown of the team, but it's good to have him back. He's got a lot experience - you can see that in our trainings, he's always talking about what he wants and what we need and that's been gold for us."
It is still very early days in Umaga's reign since he took over from John Kirwan, but the signs have been promising. For one, his squad have emerged from pre-season training relatively light on injury, with 20-year-old midfielder TJ Faiane the only long-term casualty due to a serious knee injury.
Also unavailable for the Rebels match will be All Blacks prop Charlie Faumuina, former Chiefs loose forward Tanerau Latimer, and Male Sa'u, a midfielder who, like Latimer, has just arrived from Japanese club rugby.
The Ioane brothers, Akira and Rieko, plus Ben Lam, will return next Tuesday after their national sevens duties in Sydney this weekend, but the trio have added to the positivity around the Blues squad with their performances in Wellington last weekend.
Kaino said: "You get all that success in the All Black environment and you really want to bottle that up and bring it to the Blues and help out our franchise.
"All of the Blues boys were on fire... Hopefully they get through Sydney untouched and they're fit and ready to come back to us."
The trio, who are in the frame to represent New Zealand at the Rio Olympics, will be unavailable for the Blues after round 10.