The Chiefs are prepared to face the Super Rugby season without Sam Cane, as the loose forward's recovery from a broken neck continues.
Cane suffered the injury in the All Blacks 32-30 win over the Springboks in Pretoria last October, and was only able to jog for the first time since the injury earlier this year.
"He's still miles away," Chiefs assistant coach Tabai Matson admitted after a hit out between the Chiefs and Blues in Waiuku on Friday.
The 27-year-old Cane was an integral part of the Chiefs 2018 campaign which was derailed by injuries from the outset. However, the Chiefs will have to find ways to cope without him on the pitch. Matson said the side were hoping to see the loose forward back in April or May, but conceded the reality was likely to be a different story.
"We've had to count him out really, to be fair. There's lots of footy to play before he even gets close.
"It could be a blessing in disguise for him around a lot of the leadership he can focus on for us."
Of course, Cane would undoubtedly love to suit up for the Chiefs this season, but he could very well be in a race to get back to full strength in time for this year's Rugby World Cup in Japan in September. Any slip up in his recovery could set him back substantially given the severity of his injury.
But while Cane is unavailable, the Chiefs were set to welcome the return of some of the players they lost early in the 2018 season, including prop Atunasia Moli and loose forward Mitch Brown. Brown was back on the paddock for the Chiefs on Friday, getting limited reps early in the hit out, while giving Moli some reps as well was seriously considered.
The pair were expected to be fit for round one, and prop Kane Hames, who missed all of last season with a concussion issue, was thought to be nearing a return as well.
"I don't want to curse them, but we're really positive about having those players available this season," Matson said.
Hames was set to rejoin the squad next week along with the team's other All Blacks and be slowly weaned back into action, however no team's All Blacks will feature in any of the preseason fixtures over the coming weeks.
"They're key contributors and key to our success so we're all excited to have them back in. They look like they've been training hard so next Monday they'll join the flock and take the lead in some areas.
"The quicker everybody can get them in, the better it is for you team, so that will be our focus."