There is a lot on George Moala's shoulders (and dicky knee) as he resumes his Auckland career on Sunday at Eden Park.
The All Blacks midfielder was on the cusp of his third test appearance when he suffered a knee injury in the week of last month's Sydney Bledisloe. It was just a short-term setback, but frustrating all the same.
It has been equally frustrating watching an Auckland team play like they are missing him terribly. He provided the 2015 thrust from second five, lethal, indeed unstoppable, from close to the tryline. Moala scored 10 tries, saw the union through to the Premiership final and clinched the NZ Rugby provincial player of the year gong. He was critical to the Auckland pattern, and without his voice and power, they have struggled for fluency from the midfield out at times this season. Moala has 27 tries from his 45 appearances for Auckland.
It all means the Counties Manukau midfielders Cardiff Vaega and Sam Vaka, themselves sharp attackers, will be on high alert. But this will be Moala's first official match since the climax of the Blues' season on July 15, so one should not expect the world as he suits up in the No 13 jersey, where he will ultimately play his best rugby.
"Anytime we get someone like George back is fantastic. We've just got to keep things simple so it's easy for him to get himself back into the game and not try to do too much. He'll be a threat but people will be watching him," says Auckland coach Nick White.
All Blacks squad forwards Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Patrick Tuipulotu will fly back from Christchurch on Sunday morning to take places on the bench, meaning the Grammar TEC pair of prop Tom McHugh and lock Scott Scrafton will start.
Blake Gibson made a better than expected return to rugby in the defeat to Waikato last Sunday, scoring two tries and playing the full game.
"Gibbo was great. We hadn't planned for him to go the full 80, but he's a bit of a freak with his conditioning and just loves playing," says White.
University threequarter Liam Steel, son of Drug Free Sport New Zealand chief executive Graeme Steel, will possibly make his long awaited Auckland debut, off the bench, after a lengthy rehab from an Achilles tendon injury. Tongan international Latiume Fosita slots into fullback, while Rieko Ioane shifts to the wing to accommodate Moala.
Even a cursory review of the stats from the Waikato loss would say that Auckland should seek to get the ball into No 8 Akira Ioane's hands as much as possible. He beat no less than 22 defenders. But of course it is a matter of working that line-breaking power around the game plan and having the players running the correct support lines to allow him to pass or offload when required to fully capitalise on his metre-eating.
Both Auckland and Counties Manukau have consistently suffered in 2016 from chronic inconsistency and sluggish starts. So that should make the first quarter fascinating to watch on Sunday.
"I think it's a bit of a mental thing. They've just go to get themselves ready to play. A lot of teams like to belt the hell out of us from the start. We need to value the ball a bit more and hold onto it," White says. "If we allow a team like Counties to get away, there's no way we'll get back."
The Steelers are the what-if team of the Premiership, having lost their three games by three, one and one points respectively. They could easily be 4-1 instead of 2-3. Ditto Auckland, who in fact lie third and their three wins from five games represent the same return as in 2015 at the halfway mark.
"I reckon they've been bloody unlucky. They play a good style of footy and they are massive in the forwards," says White, wary of the Steelers' famed physicality.
Last season's Auckland head coach Paul Feeney was back getting hands-on at training, which he loves, helping with the backs after assistant Bevan Cadwallader was absent due to a family bereavement.
The Steelers for their part, have made just two changes to their starting XV from the gut-wrenching 30-29 loss to Taranaki on Wednesday. Piers Francis and Jimmy Tupou have recovered from what looked to be nasty injuries to the ear and knee respectively, while lock Viliame Rarasea comes back into the second row, while Sione Fifita replaces Sione Molia on the right wing. Flanker Onosa'i Auva'a comes onto the bench and will possibly face his old union again.
"There's no doubt everyone was really disappointed with Wednesday night's result, especially going back to back with Wellington the week before. But the guys have shaped up pretty well and everyone is in good spirits," says Steelers coach Darryl Suasua.
"We all realise that we have a big opportunity against our big brothers at Eden Park on Sunday. Eden Park is a holy grail, not just for New Zealand rugby, but world rugby. It's a huge occasion playing there and everything about this weekend's match is exciting for our boys."
Up for grabs will be the Dan Bryant Memorial Trophy, which is in Auckland's possession after the 31-16 win in Pukekohe last season.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 2.35pm on Sunday.
Auckland: Latiume Fosita, Pryor Collier, George Moala, Vince Aso, Rieko Ioane, Simon Hickey (c), Leon Fukofuka, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Taleni Seu, Scott Scrafton, Michael Fatialofa, Marcel Renata, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Tom McHugh; Reserves: Kurt Eklund, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, James Lay, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liaki Moli, Jono Hickey, Liam Steel, Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald
Counties Manukau: Luteru Laulala, Sione Fifita, Sam Vaka, Cardiff Vaega, Sherwin Stowers, Piers Francis, August Pulu (c), So'otala Fa'aso'o, Jordan Taufua, Matt Vaai, Jimmy Tupou (c), Viliame Rarasea, Kalolo Tuiloma, Gafatasi Sua, Sean Bagshaw; Reserves: Sione Anga'aelangi, Sean Paranihi, Sione Faletau, Matiaha Martin, Onosa'i Auva'a, Jonathan Taumateine, Joe Reynolds, Sione Molia