There was a time when Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby prop Namatahi Waa thought he would never play again after a serious neck injury.

"It was back in 2017 during a pre-season contact session with the Northland Taniwha," Waa recalled on the eve of the Magpies fifth round Mitre 10 Cup Championship match against the Southland Stags at Napier's McLean Park tonight.

"I was driven into the ground by another forward. There was a bulge around the C5, C6 vertebrae in the spine. My spinal chord had been pinched ... but being a stubborn Maori I carried on," Waa explained.

"Later that day I wasn't feeling right so I stopped and got the doctor to check it out. I was told I could have been paralysed from the neck down and surgery was required," Waa said.

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Following surgery Waa had to wear a neck brace for three months. It was the middle of the summer and he experienced some uncomfortable days.

"My neck held me back for a while. It knocked my confidence and I was left wondering if I could play my normal game again," Waa recalled.

"I decided to have a break and rehab my neck. I relied on my job as an arborist ... climbing up and down trees to keep me fit."

The 2016 Maori All Black, who played four games for the Blues that same year, didn't get back on to the field until he played the last five games of this season for Taradale Rugby and Sports.

Te Aute College product Waa, 28, did enough to prove he was ready for a return to the first class scene.

After four appearances off the subs bench for the Magpies earlier in their campaign tighthead prop Waa will make his first starting XV appearance tonight. He replaces Maori All Blacks and Hurricanes prop Ben May who has a bout of the flu.

"While the body is feeling you good you always want to be fitter and stronger. It's good to have the foot back in the door and while I'm trying to get my body into shape if a Super contract popped up and I would take it. You always strive to get back to the higher level," Waa said.

Once the rugby season finishes he will get into scaffolding, another physical job which he said will help keep his fitness levels up.

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He is expecting a physical clash tonight and he agreed the winless Stags will be eager to redeem themselves in the wake of last weekend's 80-0 loss to Canterbury.

During his days at Te Aute College Waa had three years, 2007, '08 and '09, in the first XV.

Former Magpies Billy Ropiha and Jorian Tangaere were among his teammates and former Magpie Mano Flutey was one of his coaches.

While Waa is enjoying being back in the Bay catching up with old schoolmates so is his partner, Hukarere College old girl Chivon Pohe.

"We're loving it and so are our two boys," Waa said referring to 6-year-old Felix-Kupa and Kayne, 4.

"After a year and a bit off it's good to be back out on the field," he added.

Meanwhile, Magpies centre Stacey Ili will be given until kick off to prove he is ready for tonight's match.

Head coach Mark Ozich said Ili has responded well during the week to treatment on the charlie he collected during last weekend's 43-28 victory against Northland in Whangarei.

"I would rank his chances as 50-50 at this stage but we've decided to give him until game day to prove his fitness," Ozich said yesterday.

Should Ili fail his fitness test in the pre-match warm up Neria Fomai will move from the right wing to centre, Ollie Sapsford will start on the right wing and Timo Vaiusu will replace Sapsford on the bench.

Should Vaiusu get game time it will be his first class debut for the Magpies who are unbeaten and top of the Championship table with 18 points out of a possible 20.

Former Wellington Lions prop Joel Hintz, who started for the Magpies in their first three outings of the season, returns to the playing 23 and will replace Waa on the subs bench.

Other changes to the forward pack will see Michael Allardice replace Tom Parsons at lock, Devan Flanders replace Geoff Cridge at blindside flanker and Josh Kaifa replace Brendon O'Connor at openside flanker.

"This is an opportunity for other guys to stake a claim for starting berths. In Brendon's case he has had a lot of minutes," Ozich said.

His team did well to improve their missed tackle count from 31 in the win against Otago to 21 against Northland. They also improved their turnovers conceded count by one to 14 and their penalties conceded count by four to 11.

With difficult weather conditions expected it will be interesting to see if the Magpies can continue this improvement.

Teams for the 5.45pm clash:
Hawke's Bay Magpies: Caleb Makene, Neria Fomai/Ollie Sapsford, Stacey Ili/Neria Fomai, Danny Toala, Mason Emerson, Lincoln McClutchie, Folau Fakatava, Gareth Evans (vice captain), Josh Kaifa, Devan Flanders, Michael Allardice, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Namatahi Waa, Ash Dixon (captain), Pouri Rakete-Stones. Substitutes: Forwards, Kianu Kereru-Symes, Jason Long, Joel Hintz, Tom Parsons, Geoff Cridge, Brendon O'Connor. Backs, Zac Donaldson, Ollie Sapsford/Timo Vaiusu.

Southland Stags: Marty McKenzie, Josh Moorby, Isaac Te Tamaki, Ray Nu'u, Lausili Taliauli, Scott Eade (vice captain), Logan Crowley, Bill Fukofuka, Matt James, Brayden Mitchell (captain), Mike McKee, Ray Tatafu, Morgan Mitchell, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Joe Walsh. Substitutes: Forwards, Flynn Thomas, Shaun Stodart, Howard Sililoto, Charles Alaimalo, Viliami Tosi. Backs, Jay Renton, Moses Faletolu, Lewis Ormond.