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Slade's challenge a 'mental' one

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Sportal.co.nz     14 Feb 2013     Getty Images

A 10-Test All Black with a World Cup under his belt, it's a little odd that, at just 25, he isn't quite champing at the bit to be back in the driver's seat of the most anticipated team in the New Zealand conference.

But as he revealed to Sportal 'a long ride' of dealing with injuries, including the most recent - a broken fibula, has taken a toll on his usually clear head where despondent thoughts have led to the question: 'Can I do it again?'

"Physically I'm going to come right. I'm going to get strength back and I'm going to be able to tackle again; it's just [whether] mentally 'can I do it again?'" Slade explained two weeks after returning to contact training.

"Can I think to myself that if I go out to a breakdown or something like that, I won't break a leg again?"

Skipping the Highlanders' season opener against the Chiefs, Slade will instead use a development side match to 'remember how to play rugby' before even thinking about a return to the front lines.

A bye in round two will be another chance to clear the cobwebs with the B team if he chooses.

For the second time Lima Sopoaga is set to kick-off the season, literally, in Slade's absence - as he did in 2011.

The Wellington-based 22-year-old made positives strides in his combination with Blues recruit Ma'a Nonu in a 38-21 win over the Crusaders.

Still, coach Jamie Joseph is 'frustrated' to not have Slade, who has played just eight games in two years under him, available for selection but said there was no need for him to return prematurely.

"He has started doing a bit of rugby but he's better to get his leg absolutely right," Joseph said of Slade's participation in half of the team's 10 training sessions per week.

"There could be a slight chance he could be available for the match against the Chiefs ... but it's going to be touch and go and we're not going to rush him."

Joseph's fondness of physical contact has helped Slade overcome his reluctance to take the big blows once again.

"That's the good thing about Jamie; he loves hard training and he loves contact and that's good for me because I've got no choice, I've just got to go in there and do it," Slade said.

"He's not like 'just go in there and see how you go.'"

Nine 'lonely' months of physical rehab ensured plenty of time to ponder the unfortunate series of events that have blighted his career.

And while he admits continuous injuries make mental recovery even more difficult, he has opted not to seek professional help from sports psychologists which are available to the squad.

"There are options for it but I'm of the opinion, and it's a personal opinion of mine, that if you talk too much about it will happen," he said.

Slade overcame a niggling groin injury and two broken jaws to pip more experienced candidates, Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald, to the World Cup as Dan Carter's deputy - who he later replaced as the starting No 10.

That triumph was met with more disappointment after a sandwiching tackle between Argentinean defenders in the quarterfinal left him grimacing face down on the Eden Park turf clutching his torn groin.

In 2012, after a hernia operation restricted his second Highlanders pre-season, a fit-again Slade threw his hat back in the ring, confident the injury curse had left him.

Running at the Rebels with ball in hand, he had no idea he was about to face his biggest struggle yet.

The sickening sound of his leg buckling beneath the ensuing tackle is something that is hard for the former Crusader to forget.

"I don't want to say to myself that I'm going to be scared of the breakdown, because I'll talk myself into it," added Slade.

"I've really got to stay positive about it."

The Highlanders take on the Blues in their third and final game of the pre-season in Queenstown on Friday.