Michael Hobbs' rugby career hinges on a screw.
The talented 22-year-old had surgery on his spine three weeks ago in Los Angeles and now faces an agonising wait to see if he will be able to return to top-level sport.
Hobbs has been battling the back injury for two years since being diagnosed with a stress fracture during his first season of Super rugby with the Blues.
But only now has he told of the true extent of a horrific year that finally found some hope in Robert Watkins' California medical practice.
Watkins inserted a 25mm screw in the middle of Hobbs' spine, a procedure that has successfully helped NFL and NHL players in America return to their sports.
There are no guarantees, however, and Hobbs, who arrived back in Wellington in a restrictive back brace, is prepared for the worst.
"From all accounts the surgeons over there are very happy. I had to stay over there for a week to have X-rays and stuff, but they were really happy with where they've put the screw and how everything went, so I'm hopeful for a positive outcome.
"What I got diagnosed with is really rare, not so much the stress fracture, but having it at the L2 level. It's a little bit higher. They are normally at the L5, which is near the base," he said.
The plan is for Hobbs' bones to heal around the screw, which will provide stability during the healing process.
"My goal will be to be fully fit and in the best shape possible at the end of nine months.
"That would be aiming for ITM Cup next year, hopefully a bit of club rugby in May or June.
"Luckily for me I have study, so I'm doing that this semester [at Victoria University] and I'm looking into other things to keep my mind fresh. I know I'm facing a very real chance I won't be able to play again.
"The surgeon said, 'listen, the odds are in your favour, but sometimes these just don't heal as we'd like. Your quality of life will be fine, but you might not be able to return to high-level sport'."
The Wellington first-five or second-five has become something of a forgotten man since his sparkling start to this year's Super 14 for the Highlanders.
He scored two tries off the bench in the season opener against the Crusaders, but said it was that night at AMI Stadium that his nightmare began.
"I took time off last year to heal it and after about six months it showed good signs, felt great and I was cleared to get back into rugby.
"I did the whole preseason with the Highlanders and then in the last minute of that first game against the Crusaders I got tackled and I felt the tear in the middle of my back. I knew straight away that I'd refractured it."
Hobbs had two CT guided injections to reduce inflammation and played on in pain till Hurricanes centre Conrad Smith stood on and broke his hand two weeks later.
"I had to get surgery on my hand and I just thought this is a sign. I need to think about how I deal with this. I'm 22-years-old and I started to worry about my quality of life after rugby."
He received a sobering assessment from New Zealand surgeons.
The options were to attempt to heal again through core work and Pilates then manage the injury week to week, explore surgery, or retire.
Hobbs took option one, and for 2 1/2 months he worked like mad in the gym.
But it proved to be false hope and he lasted just 15 minutes of a club game for Old Boys University before reality kicked in.
"I made a tackle and it just went. At that moment I thought, look, I've got to get this fixed because it's doing my head in."
With the help of the New Zealand Rugby Union, which paid the equivalent of what the surgery would have cost in New Zealand, Hobbs headed to Watkins, who has treated top-level sportspeople such as ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
Now all he can do is wait.
He has stayed positive through his ordeal and says he drew both inspiration and perspective from his father Jock's fight to overcome cancer.
Now he will hope and pray the year ahead is not quite as challenging as the last.
- © Fairfax NZ News