All Blacks captain Kieran Read faces a race against time to prove his fitness ahead of the much-anticipated series against the British and Irish Lions after being ruled out for six weeks with a broken thumb.
Read sustained the injury in the Crusaders’ Super Rugby 48-21 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Initial reports suggested that the highly-regarded No 8 might miss the entire three Test series but Read has already had surgery ahead of flying home to New Zealand and commentators expect him to be fit for action a fortnight before the first Test in Auckland on June 24.
If there are no complications in Read’s rehab programme then he could even be rushed straight back for the All Blacks’ pencilled-in warm-up game against Samoa seven days prior to the Lions series. Even if the recovery process is straightforward, however, Read will be significantly short of match-sharpness after this latest set-back.
The 31-year-old, who succeeded Richie McCaw to the New Zealand captaincy following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, has been plagued by a succession of injures and only returned to the Crusaders fold on April 14 after wrist surgery in the off-season.
"(It is) extremely disappointing for Kieran and the All Blacks," Crusaders assistant coach Jason Ryan said. "The guy has worked so hard off the field to get his hand right from the surgery he had during the offseason and has been world class since returning to the field. Obviously it's disappointing and will be concerning for the All Blacks."
All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, has other injury concerns to ponder over the coming weeks notably in the back-row where another experienced operator, Jerome Kaino, is also in doubt after undergoing knee surgery last week.
Kaino has been a stalwart figure in the back-row trio and although Hansen is blessed with a rake of other options, from the likes of Matt Todd and Liam Messam to Ardie Savea and Steven Luatua, he would prefer to have his most battle-hardened troops available to him.
Openside flanker Sam Cane captained the All Blacks the last time Read did not start a test - against Italy last November - and the 25-year-old has long been identified as a strong candidate to succeed his Crusaders team mate in the long term.
The Lions, who will be captained by Sam Warburton, start their tour with a match against a New Zealand Barbarians side in Whangarei on June 3.