Former Blues player Orene Ai’i has made a remarkable return to the franchise he last played for in 2004 to provide cover for an escalating injury crisis.
With Gareth Anscombe out for the rest of the season and Michael Hobbs suffering from a leg injury, there are precious few options for first five-eighths within the Blues squad.
Piri Weepu looms as the obvious candidate but as he is currently immersed with the All Blacks, and the fact Wider Training Group halfback Wayne Ngaluafe is also out for the rest of the season, it is likely Weepu will continue his duties in the number nine jersey.
Coupled with David Raikuna’s broken leg, the other potential pivot in Lachie Munro will have to cover wing, forcing Lam to look outside his squad to fill the void.
32-year-old Ai’i has been approved to assemble with the Blues until the All Black players return to the franchise, but he is yet to be given an official contract with the NZRU allowing him to play Super Rugby.
Ai’i, who won a Super Rugby championship with the Blues in 2003, left Auckland a year later to play rugby in Japan before heading to French Club Toulon where he was joined by Tana Umaga in 2007.
He played two seasons in Europe before heading back to Japan where he has been plying his trade up until March this year.
The former New Zealand Sevens star has signed to play for Northland in this year’s ITM Cup and caught the eye of Lam playing for the Asia Pacific Barbarians in Hong Kong two weeks ago, a team Lam was coaching.
Ai’i said he was thrilled to be back in blue.
“I was quite surprised when I got the call but really happy to be back in the fold, I’ve pretty much gone full circle but it’s great to be back and all these young guys are keeping me honest,” Ai’i said.
Lam said it was important Ai’i was brought in to train with the squad in case the Blues found themselves with no back-up first five-eighths on the week of their match against the Western Force.
“He’s part of our franchise having signed for Northland and when we went to Hong Kong he played very well at 10 for the Barbarians so I thought it would be good for him to join us as injury cover,” Lam said.
“He has a great deal of experience and it covers a hole for us so at this stage he’s been allowed to come and train and hopefully we can get him involved.
“We don’t want to arrive on the week of the game and have no ten so it’s important he’s here to train and learn as much as he can because it’s such a crucial position.”
Ai’i joined the Blues squad on Monday for his first week’s training and was involved in a scenario based match against the Auckland ITM Cup Wider Training Squad on Wednesday night.
Me and the great man I watched the game with 🙂 somebody pinch metwitpic.com/a5hfbs
Caprice Stevenson (@capricest) July 8, 2012