With a new heart valve and a new team, the desire remains for Robbie Fruean to be considered among the best players in rugby.

The 25-year-old will tonight play his first game in more than eight months, when the Chiefs begin their Super rugby title defence with a pre-season match against the Reds in Toowoomba.

Much has changed in Fruean's life since his last run out, for the Crusaders last May. To start with, he has swapped the only side to win three straight Super Rugby championships for a team attempting to emulate that feat.

More importantly, though, Fruean has undergone a second heart operation, received another replacement valve and made a full recovery to return to rugby.


The centre will add strength and size to the Chiefs' midfield and, while he is initially setting his sights on small achievements, he has a grander goal in mind now he is again fully fit.

"I want to stay healthy and, first and foremost, I want to put my hand up for starting position," he said of his targets this season, "then just play really well, day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out for the brothers.

"My whole life I've grown up wanting to play rugby and be the best at it. So this is hopefully another opportunity for me to put my foot forward and make a claim as to being one of the best rugby players out there."

That ambition appeared on track when, in 2007, he was named the IRB under-19 world player of the year after leading New Zealand to the world championship. But Fruean's rugby career was temporarily curtailed two years later, with open heart surgery required after a bout of rheumatic fever caused pancarditis, or inflammation.

Sixty-one caps for the Crusaders later, Fruean noticed early last year his cardiac function was weakening. Further surgery was needed in July and the original valve was swapped for a larger version, ruling him out of the remainder of the season.

After successful surgery and with non-contact training having progressed to full sessions, Fruean is ready once again to play rugby.

"I just want to start getting some match fitness under my belt and really just try to make a claim for a starting position," he said. "And I just want to get a feel for the game again. I mean, it's been eight months. So I want to find my feet and learn to play with some of the boys here."

Those lessons are necessary after Fruean decided in October to sign with the Chiefs. While some felt he owed his old franchise after the support they offered throughout his medical issues, the Crusaders offered only a wider-training squad spot, compared to the Chiefs' full contract.

"There were a lot of things that came into play but, at the end of the day, it just didn't work out and it was time to move on," Fruean said. "It has been a different set-up but it's still a set-up where the team is hungry and has the same desires."

Fruean must be hungrier than most and while the Chiefs are blessed in midfield backs - with Mils Muliaina joining Andrew Horrell, Charlie Ngatai, Bundee Aki and Tim Nanai-Williams - Fruean has his heart set on finally fulfilling his potential.