It's been a long journey back for Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby lock Geoff Cridge, who will play his first match in 10 months today.
If there was any doubt Cridge would return for the unbeaten Mitre 10 Cup Championship leaders who take on the Counties-Manukau Steelers in their first crossover match of the season at Napier's McLean Park tomorrow there should not have been. Cridge, 23, is no stranger to memorable comebacks.
In 2016 the two-time New Zealand Under-20 rep and one-time world champion returned to Magpies duty after a full season off with knee and shoulder injuries and performed so well he was a popular choice for the MVP and Players Player awards at the Magpies end-of-season awards function.
"Hopefully the knee doesn't go again," Cridge said referring to a knee injury collected at training during the week after the October 7 34-7 loss to Northland last year.
The Christchurch Boys' High School old boy who grew up in Darfield, a small town 35km west of Christchurch, is hoping to have 30 to 40 minutes off the subs bench tomorrow.
"The team has been going good. The boys are excited and the young fellas have all been going good too."
A Hurricanes squad member from 2015-'17, Cridge is hoping to return to the Super scene after this NPC season. He is grateful for the assistance he received from the Hurricanes medical staff during his rehab this year.
"I spent a lot of time down in Wellington. While I was down there I did a lot of building work which was good for me too," the Hastings Rugby and Sports club player said.
The Steelers will arrive in Napier winless after three losses. Their last outing was a 26-19 loss to Taranaki in Pukekohe on Wednesday night.
"They're coming off a short turn around. So it's important we smash them up front. If we can do that it will allow our forwards to dominate so we can give our backs good pill to score some points," Cridge added.
Magpies head coach Mark Ozich had no hesitation in naming Cridge in his 23 despite not having played since October last year.
"Ideally it would have been good to give him a run with the Saracens last week but they didn't have a game. Geoff is fit and lean and ready to go."
Ozich has made just one change to his starting XV used in their 31-25 win against Otago eight days ago. Chiefs lock Michael Allardice is unavailable with headaches and has been replaced by Sam Ulufonua who made his first class debut for the Magpies as a substitute against Southland on August 19.
Captain and hooker Ash Dixon recovered from his rib injuries collected against Otago and Ozich said the eight-day turn around worked in Dixon's favour.
Ozich agreed his troops will have to be on their game defensively particularly around the fringes where the big physical and robust Steelers forwards tend to target.
The Magpies did well to improve their discipline during the match against Otago. They still need to work harder to reduce their missed tackle count.
One player who was error-free on defence against Otago after missing three tackles against Southland, winger Mason Emerson, has predictably escaped sanction after he was cleared of foul play following a citing after the Dunedin match.
Emerson was cited for a dangerous tackle. The citing commissioner noted Emerson's upper arm struck the opposing player's face with force, leaving the player stunned for a brief period before he carried on with play.
The player wasn't sent for a head injury assessment and the referee had noted the tackle as "riding up" and only issued a penalty kick for the offence.
After considering evidence from Emerson, and video evidence of the incident, judicial officer Chris Morris found the player's evidence to be credible. He noted that the first contact between the players involved a head to head collision, with Emerson being hit in the chin by the top of the other player's head.
"It is clear to see that Emerson pulled his head upward at the last moment and avoided what would have been a face to face collision."
Morris said on considering the evidence, he could not be satisfied that Emerson had committed the foul play for which he had been cited.
Former Magpie Cardiff Vaega will start at second five-eighth for the Steelers. Winger Toni Pulu and fullback Luteru Laulala can be dangerous attackers if given too much space.
There will be plenty of pre-game activities for fans before tomorrow's match. They will include the Rugby Rampage course, the Unison Challenge Shield final between Wairoa College and the Napier Boys' High School 3rd XV and entertainment from the band Stolen Records.
There will also be free face painting and loads of give aways including this season's Magpies posters.
Teams for the 2.05pm clash:
Hawke's Bay Magpies: JJ Taulagi, Jonah Lowe, Stacey Ili, Pasqualle Dunn, Mason Emerson, Tiaan Falcon, Brad Weber, Gareth Evans, Josh Kaifa, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Sam Ulufonua, Tom Parsons, Ben May, Ash Dixon, Mark Braidwood. Substitutes: Forwards, Ben Power, Joe Apikotoa, Pouri Rakete-Stones, Devan Flanders, Geoff Cridge, Will Tremain. Backs, Folau Fakatava, Sasa Tofilau.
Counties-Manukau Steelers: Luteru Laulala, Toni Pulu, Sam Furniss, Cardiff Vaega, Tevita Nabura, Latiume Fosita, Te Aihe Toma, Dan Hyatt, Caleb Fa'alili, Matt Vaai, Matiaha Martin (captain), Viliame Rarasea, Kalolo Tuiloma, Joseph Royal, Sean Bagshaw. Substitutes: Forwards, Gafatasi Su'a, Mark Royal, Coree Te Whata Colley, Michael McKee, Sikeli Nabou. Backs, Liam Daniela, Orbyn Leger, Savelio Ropati.