Charlie Ngatai set for club rugby return after prolonged absence with concussion symptoms
Charlie Ngatai will make his return to rugby this weekend after almost a year on the sidelines with concussion symptoms.
Chiefs midfielder Ngatai, who played his one and only test for the All Blacks against Samoa in Apia in 2015, has not played since May 7 last year when he was involved in a head clash in a match against the Highlanders in Hamilton.
The incident was not initially deemed serious but the 26-year-old was unable to shake the effects of the knock and he has not featured at any level since.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie told Radio Sport on Thursday the absence was set to end this weekend.
Ngatai is set to line up for University on Saturday in the Waikato club competition - the team he has turned out for on the odd occasion over the past few years - in their match against Otorohanga at the Island Reserve.
In saying that, University have submitted their team sheet without Ngatai's name, and coach Shannon Mackey was reluctant to confirm they would have a star midfielder on their hands, as they have been getting "some directives" from the Chiefs throughout the return to play process, and things could change before kick off.
"We're not hanging our hat 100 per cent on it," he said.
Mackey, who has had fellow Chiefs Stephen Donald, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Atu Moli also make fleeting appearances for the club in the past, said he's been told, all going well, Ngatai would meet them at the ground, as opposed to joining the bus from Hamilton, and wasn't yet sure of any restriction on his playing time.
Just to get through even a half of footy would seem a decent step after what has been such a prolonged absence.
Rennie said they were excited for their charge and indicated the situation had been far more difficult for Ngatai than it had been for them.
"There would have been a lot of self doubt around whether he'd play again, it's been such a long process but you've got to give this time.
"He's been doing contact work for about a month, just to make sure he is really confident, getting his body back into the right sort of shape.
"I reckon he was one of the best players in Super Rugby last year till he got injured. He's got a massive amount to offer New Zealand rugby and it's hugely exciting for us if we can get him back for the second half of the comp."
Ngatai's head knock against the Highlanders last year had come at an unfortunate time.
He had been in superb form for the Chiefs prior, earning him a recall to the All Blacks squad before he was unable to make his return to the international fray.
As his absence went on, doubts began to linger around just how serious the situation may be.
Rennie admitted to Radio Sport they had entertained the prospect Ngatai may never play again and be forced into early retirement by concussion as Chiefs team-mate and All Blacks prop Ben Afeaki had been in April, 2015.
"We felt the same thing, too, and I'm sure Charlie had some doubts at certain stages but you've just got to take your time and do everything right, and that is what we've done.
"I'm pleased for him, he's worked really hard and I know he's excited about getting back out and playing."
With the British and Irish Lions soon to arrive on New Zealand shores, former New Zealand Maori captain Ngatai may well be eyeing up the tantalising prospect of facing them. The Lions play the Maori on June 17, before facing the Chiefs three days later.
The University club Ngatai is expected to play on Saturday suffered heavy defeats in their first two matches, losing 44-11 to Hautapu and 46-22 to defending champions Melville.
AT A GLANCE
Waikato premier club rugby, Rd 4. All games at 2:45pm.
Hamilton Old Boys v United Matamata Sports at Fred Jones Park, Hamilton; Otorohanga v University at Island Reserve, Hamilton, Southern United v Hautapu at Tokoroa Memorial Sports Ground, Tokoroa; Te Awamutu Sports v Hamilton Marist at Bedford Park, Te Awamutu.
Thursday result: Fraser Tech 21-20 Melville