The All Blacks received a welcome boost Monday with imposing back row forward Kieran Read confirming he was on track to return to the field before the end of the World Cup pool rounds.
Although he is unlikely to make the crunch game against France on September 24, Read is expected to take the field against Canada a week later.
The inspirational Read has been out of action since suffering a high ankle sprain early in the All Blacks 25-20 loss to Australia in the Tri-Nations decider last month.
For the first time since then, he appeared at the All Blacks training on Monday without a moon boot and was able to move freely on the sidelines.
The 32-Test, 25-year-old is an integral part of the All Blacks premier loose trio with Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino, moving coach Graham Henry to admit before the World Cup "we're praying" for a rapid recovery.
Read said his progress was on track to have one game under his belt before the play-offs.
"From today [Monday] I can actually get around and walk around a bit normally. All signs are to hopefully be back for that Canada game, the last pool game," he said.
Read said he would be running again from next week but his match fitness would be down after being confined to swimming pool work since the injury.
"I'm not going to be where I'd like to be but I've been working hard with the trainers in the pool. I can bike, so my aerobic fitness should still be fairly strong. I suppose it's just going to be match fitness which might be lacking."
Victor Vito, a late call up to the All Blacks this year, deputised for Read in their World Cup opener against Tonga but without making the same impact expected from the regular No.8.
Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick said the rub off from Read's absence was seen in McCaw's performance in the 41-10 victory.
"He plays even better when Kieran Read is there. That's why Read has to be back for those last four matches," he wrote in a newspaper column.
A second All Blacks loose forward Adam Thomson, who suffered an elbow injury in the same Test that sidelined Read, has resumed training and is expected to be available for the All Blacks next match against Japan on September 16.
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