If a torrid fitness session with Sonny Bill Williams in Wellington last Saturday suggested Kieran Read is physically on the brink of a welcome return to the game, his attitude at All Blacks training recently has all but confirmed it.
The All Blacks captain, who has yet to play this year due to back surgery at the end of 2017, has been running against the starting line-up before the third test against France in Dunedin on Saturday and has been making a nuisance of himself according to coach Steve Hansen.
"Reado is making some good progress so you should see him on the park in a couple of weeks – maybe for Counties," Hansen said.
"He's been a pain in the butt at training. The boys are getting sick of him. He's been good. He's been in the opposition - he's been as niggly as hell, so he'll be ready to go shortly."
That suggests Read, who changed provinces from Canterbury to Counties when re-signing with New Zealand Rugby last year, could play as early as next Wednesday when Counties play Tasman in a pre-season match in Manurewa.
It would be an extremely welcome return for the 32-year-old, who has played 109 tests, and it's one which will attract the attention of Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who will be hoping that Read will be available to the defending Super Rugby champions and current leaders for the rest of the season.
Read had always planned to play for the Crusaders in July, so a possible game for Counties, and suitable recovery afterwards, would put him in the frame for the Crusaders' match against the Highlanders in Christchurch on July 6 and their final round-robin match of the season against the Blues, also at home, the following weekend.
The All Blacks have missed Read. Sam Whitelock has done well as skipper in his absence but the big No8 is in a class of his own in terms of his ability to calmly lead the side, plus contest kick-offs, offload in near impossible situations, and defend like few others. The Crusaders' hopes for back-to-back titles are about to get a big boost should everything go to plan.
Hansen had good news too regarding Vaea Fifita and Beauden Barrett, both of whom suffered concussions in the 26-13 victory over France in Wellington last weekend.
Both are back training, he said. "If we'd really pushed it I think both of them could have ended up playing on Saturday but we tend to like not to play them a week after they've been concussed.
Highlander Liam Squire was recovering well from his shoulder injury suffered last weekend and Crusader Jordan Taufua was training fully after recovering from a calf strain and should be available for the Crusaders v Highlanders match.