All Black winger Rene Ranger could miss North Harbour's entire ITM Cup season after having undergone neck surgery.
Ranger has returned to New Zealand after a lukewarm stint with Montpellier in France and had hoped to feature for North Harbour in the National Provincial Championship before playing for the Blues in Super Rugby next year.
With a bunch of current All Blacks set for overseas moves after the World Cup and others looking to feature in the Rio Olympics, Ranger – who can play wing or outside centre – could fill a gap in Steve Hansen's squad next year.
But the 28-year-old's return to competition in New Zealand has been delayed after being forced to undergo surgery in France earlier this month.
The six-cap All Black is set to be sidelined for at least three months but it could take as long as six before he plays again.
"Rene has had a disc replacement in his neck. It's quite a major surgery," North Harbour coach Steve Jackson told the Dominion Post.
"Over a period of time he lost strength in his arm. That's a sign when something is not right.
"How big a part he plays in our campaign will be week-by-week. He'll be working with the medical staff and specialists in New Zealand.
"His goal is to get back, play some good rugby and his dream is to get back in the All Blacks. That's what we're here for – to get him there. We're not going to take any risks with his health. If he's not ready to play then we won't push him."