Chiefs' Robbie Fruean is back in the game
Backed by a bigger heart valve, Robbie Fruean reckons he is fitter than he has been in four years and ready to take his game to a new level.
The giant 25-year-old centre looks odds on to be named today to start at centre against his former team, the Crusaders, in the Super Rugby season opener in Christchurch on Friday night.
And if he does it will be a triumph for his battle back to fitness after last year having heart surgery for the second time, this time the faulty valve replaced by a slightly bigger version better suited to his huge frame and level of athletic performance.
The 2007 IRB Under-19 player of the year always seemed destined to be an All Black. After all, his massive 1.9-metre, 110-kilogram frame was propelled with such speed around the rugby field by a pair of sprinter's legs.
But no sooner had he spearheaded New Zealand to under-19 world championship honours and made his provincial debut for Wellington as a 19-year-old than he suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that damaged his heart.
He returned to rugby two years after open-heart surgery to replace a valve and in 2010 moved to the Crusaders, but he never quite reached his potential and never got the chance to wear the All Black jersey despite working overtime in training.
At the start of last season he found himself exhausted at the end of every run and it was revealed that he needed a second operation, the surgeon this time deciding a larger valve was needed to cope with the demands of top level rugby on Fruean's body.
The Chiefs liked what they heard from the medical experts and felt they could make Fruean a better player and get a much-needed big man in midfield as a result, and with the Crusaders looking likely to just put him in their wider training group he seized the chance to move his game on.
"I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been in in the past four years," Fruean said.
"I've made massive strides in the past two months - more than I ever did in the last four years - and that's just down to the alterations the surgeon made to my new valve.
"It's been massive and I guess because of the fact I've always had to try and work hard it's helped me make those steps count."
In fact it had enabled him to be fitter than he had ever been before.
It has provided him with a huge psychological boost and he will go into the Crusaders match feeling "pretty good about himself."
Fruean is excited about playing against his old team but admits he was so concerned about lifting his fitness and performance levels just to be in a position to play at Super Rugby level again he did not give it too much thought initially.
"When I saw that [we were going to play the Crusaders first] I guess it just gave me more drive to work even harder and make sure I put my hand up for that game," he said.