Former Kiwi league international Tasesa Lavea may be targeting an Auckland NPC rugby berth, but recovering from knee surgery is his immediate concern.
Lavea is returning to the game he grew up with, after four years in Australia playing in the National Rugby League (NRL).
Auckland rugby coach Wayne Pivac has named the 23-year-old as a first or second five-eighth in his initial 35-member squad to begin training next week.
However, Lavea's preparations have been hampered by an operation two months ago for an injury he carried through last year.
The normal rehabilitation period is three to six months and he hopes to be able to jog again in a fortnight.
With Pivac reducing his squad to 27 next month, Lavea knows time could be running out for him for this year's NPC and with it the chance to impress Super 12 franchises.
"I'm ahead of schedule, but on the other hand I don't want to come back if I'm not ready," he said today.
"I don't want to hurt the knee again and undo all the good work."
Lavea's last game of rugby was for the New Zealand Schoolboys in 1998 in a squad that included current All Blacks Jerry Collins, Aaron Mauger and Mils Muliaina.
His performance for the team in Sydney attracted the attention of the Melbourne Storm, who offered him a contract.
In 2000, in his first full season in the NRL, Lavea was named rookie of the year and also won the first of his four Kiwi caps as a 20-year-old.
After a disappointing 2001, when he found it hard to reclaim his spot as Melbourne's starting five-eighth, he transferred to the Northern Eagles.
What was to have been a two-year stint with the Eagles ? now named Manly again ? ended earlier this year after he was involved in an off-field punch-up with a team-mate.
Lavea said he had decided to come back to New Zealand partly to be near his family.
"You need the family support when times get tough and it was something I didn't have in Australia, where it was just me, my wife and my son basically," he said.
"That was a big reason, but the other was to come back to play rugby."
After his break from the game, Lavea admitted he "might get lost" initially on the field and would need three or four outings to get back into the swing of things.
Pivac said he was pleased to have someone of Lavea's ability available, but it was too early to talk about the player's prospects.
"We haven't seen Tasesa play rugby for four seasons, so it's one step at a time," he said.
"He'll get opportunities in our training squad, but certainly he's going to have to play his way into the final squad."Like