By WYNNE GRAY
It has been a long wait for Carl Hoeft, such an interval that tomorrow's All Black test against Wales is his first under coach John Mitchell.
This international in Hamilton comes almost exactly five years since Hoeft made his test debut at Eden Park and nearly two years since he last wore black.
Hoeft's last test was also the last for previous coach Wayne Smith as the All Blacks succumbed 29-26 in Sydney. After that defeat Smith hastened his departure when he told an interview panel he was unsure whether he could handle the pressure of being coach.
It was different for Hoeft. He wanted to carry on but his burly 115kg frame was not so compliant.
The problem was his left knee and recurring patella tendinitis. The test in Sydney done, Hoeft played in the NPC but his knee was not responding. Surgery was the only real option.
"It was just really painful to run," he recalled. "I could scrum but the rest was a struggle. The surgeon cut the middle third of the tendon out and said it had all turned to mush."
The knee came right but Hoeft lost much of his base fitness, he did not have time for much of the pre-Super 12 work last year. He battled on but Highlanders team-mate Joe McDonnell was preferred for the All Blacks as the selectors looked for some more zip from their front row forwards.
It was only at the end of last year's NPC that Hoeft felt he was back to full speed, that he was ready to make another impact during this year's Super 12.
In several chats with Mitchell, he had been asked to work on his mobility and cleanout work at the breakdowns during this year's competition. Mitchell liked what he saw in response and Hoeft was reunited with his old front row cronies when the squad was revealed last month.
"Yeah, you think about making it back because you are always disappointed when you don't or can't make it. It seems like a fair time since I was last with the All Blacks after the 2001 Tri-Nations.
"But I thought I went okay in the Super 12, I thought I was in pretty good form and I got the chances. Joe (McDonnell) is a good bloke and a good mate and you just never know what is going to happen.
"You never want to give anyone else a break and I congratulated him last year but I wanted to make a real fist of it this time."
Hoeft got the opening chances and never relinquished his place as part of a powerful Highlanders front row with Anton Oliver and Carl Hayman. Tomorrow he plays his 28th international alongside Keven Mealamu and Kees Meeuws.
What the 28-year-old prop does know is that he is enjoying his rugby, enjoying life and revelling in first-time fatherhood with his longtime partner Debbie.
"I have a wee son who is five months old. We have called him Noah Charles Hoeft, it was the only name we could agree on."
Hoeft's christian names are Carl Henry while his father and grandfather were both called Charles Henry.
Hoeft wanted his son to carry on that tradition but that idea only gathered halfway acceptance.
"We ended up choosing Noah, a biblical name and we really like that, it's quite cool isn't it?
"The only one who gets smart about it is Simon Maling, who reckons he has been named after Noa Nadruku from Fiji."
Hoeft's partner is from the Waikato while the prop was born and raised in the Thames Valley although he can chart a fascinating family tree.
"My great, great grandfather was from Germany with a Dutch background. He left Europe and came to the Pacific where he married a Samoan and then settled in Tonga. My grandmother is a Cook Islander while my mum is a Kiwi so there is a lot of mixed bloodlines."
A number of relatives will be in Hamilton tomorrow to encourage the return of the seasoned prop.