The ACT Brumbies and Christian Lealiifano are bracing for an end-of-year surgery hit that could leave the star playmaker with just days to prepare for the 2014 Super Rugby season.
Brumbies and Wallabies inside-centre Lealiifano will likely need an operation in December to insert a plate into his ankle after playing through pain for most of this year.
It means Lealiifano could have less than 10 days to train for the season-opener against the Queensland Reds at Canberra Stadium on February 22. Lealiifano dislocated his ankle and had a reconstruction last year, but while he made a successful comeback, he has battled recurring pain because of his heavy workload.
He will miss Australia's Bledisloe Cup clash with New Zealand on Saturday night, but will join the Wallabies on their spring tour of Europe before returning to Canberra to prepare for the Super Rugby campaign.
The Brumbies will then decide if Lealiifano needs surgery.
Backs coach Stephen Larkham is confident the 26-year-old will be fit for round one.
''He had an MRI off the back of this latest injury and there was some good news with his old fracture,'' he said.
''It might just be another plate [in his ankle] which could be two-three months [on the sideline]. He might just scrape in to play in round one. We can't really tell … but at this stage we're thinking it might be an operation and factoring in that it could take eight weeks. But things can change.''
If Lealiifano can't play in round one, the Brumbies could turn to Pat McCabe to fill the inside-centre spot. McCabe is still waiting on a medical clearance after breaking his neck twice in seven months. The 20-Test Wallaby is free to run and do pre-season strength and fitness training. McCabe is keen to play against the Reds, but will need to be cleared for a return by medical staff and the Australian Rugby Union before the Brumbies can pick him.
The Wallabies will name their team on Thursday for the third Test against the All Blacks.
Lealiifano's Brumbies teammate Matt Toomua looms as the likely candidate to replace him in the No.12 jersey.
Lealiifano has been one of Australia's most consistent performers in a tumultuous year. He made his Test debut against the British and Irish Lions and had played in every international this year, despite the Wallabies winning only three games.
His ankle problem has limited him to one goal-kicking session a week and his teammates and coaches have been in awe of his ability to push through pain to train and play. ''It's amazing the way he's been able to keep going, for a period we weren't sure what was wrong,'' Larkham said.
''Then it was diagnosed that it would be an ongoing issue. What he's done is very impressive. Some weeks he didn't kick at training at all … you're lucky if you've got a player like Christian.''
The Brumbies will unveil their extended player squad recruits at pre-season training on Thursday.
Prop JP Smith and outside-back Stefan van der Walt will fill two of the spots up for grabs, with coaches-in-waiting Larkham and Fisher finalising the last three.
Larkham or Fisher will be the Brumbies' head coach next season after Jake White quit the last two years of his contract. The duo is expected to be interviewed next week by a four-man selection committee.