TJ Perenara is back riding the rugby wave -- and loving it

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TJ Perenara is riding the crest of a wave that could soon carry him back to the All Blacks.

What a lesson in perseverance and positivity that would be.

Perenara spent 17 months on the sideline following two Achilles surgeries - the first after he suffered the initial injury coming off the bench for the All Blacks in their draw with England at Twickenham in November 2022. The second arrived six months into his recovery when another tear was discovered.

Such adversity would be enough to break many athletes, particularly those in the 32-year-old bracket who have already scaled the game's peaks that includes capturing a Rugby World Cup and Super Rugby title.

Instead, though, those injury setbacks only strengthen Perenara's resolve to return.

"It was difficult not being able to play the game I love for so long but on the flipside I got to spend time with my whānau. My relationship with my wife and my daughter grew with that quality time together," Perenara told ESPN.

"Not having expectations on the immediate future in terms of playing was important. Understanding it was a big injury, things didn't go perfectly the first time. Having goals to play footy straight away was always going to be difficult.

"I was still training to stay in condition for when I could come back but a lot of my life goals were around family and things I could control that had nothing to do with being on the field which was really helpful."

During his extended time out of the game, some suspected the chance to represent the All Blacks may have passed Perenara by.

Cam Roigard rapidly emerged as Aaron Smith's heir apparent while a similar breed of quick across the ground halfbacks, the likes of Cortez Ratima and Noah Hotham, continue to state their cases.

In late March, though, just as Perenara started his comeback off the bench for the Hurricanes, the landscape definitively shifted when Roigard suffered a season-ending patella tendon rupture.

Perenara has since turned back the clock to slot seamlessly into the Hurricanes starting No. 9 jersey and command such influence from the base for Super Rugby's only unbeaten side that his elevation to Scott Robertson's maiden All Blacks squad in July appears destined to transpire.

"I always had an expectation that I would come back and play well. I worked hard; I put a lot of time and effort into making sure I could do my job on the field.

"There's always the unknown. Has the game changed? Is the way I want to play the game still going to be effective? There was always going to be a learning period at the start.

"Unfortunately we ended up losing Cam early in our season which gives me more minutes earlier than I or the coaching staff would've expected. Obviously I don't want my mate to be injured, I'd love him to be playing. We were going out there to be the two best nines in the country but getting the opportunity to play big minutes has been awesome for me to be comfortable and confident."

Having played 80 Tests since 2014, and with a physical point of difference compared to Finlay Christie, Ratima and Hotham, Perenara suddenly looms as a key figure in Robertson's initial All Blacks plans.

"It's pleasing to know the way I play can impact the team and impact winning. I was always confident that if my play style wasn't currently effective I could adapt and adjust but to play the way I want to and for that to be effective is pleasing. I know as teams review us and see trends I'm doing, parts of my game will have to adjust and I might have to bring different tools out but that's part of winning, part of sport, and if you're not growing you're going backwards."

Fighting through the frustration to reach this juncture hasn't happened by chance. Perenara is one of the most dedicated, competitive athletes New Zealand rugby has produced - as is evident by forging himself into the best condition of his career.

"There [are] countless hours that go into it. We'd start our normal training day at 8am and there's a few of us who will often be in here a lot earlier than that making sure we get the small parts of our game, and our bodies, right.

"Then there's time on laptops to make sure we're looking at our game, our team's game and the opposition. There's a lot of time that goes into the 80 minutes that people don't see but I really enjoy that time because you can separate yourself from other athletes if you get that part right."

While sidelined Perenara had offers to continue his career abroad but a refusal to end his New Zealand chapter on such a sour note -- and a burning desire to regain his place in the All Blacks -- ensured he stuck around.

"Being away from the game, not being able to play for the Canes and the All Blacks last year, was hard. It's something I really wanted to do again. I didn't want to have my last year in New Zealand being injured, not being able to play for the teams I loved. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to play for those teams again and to have an impact winning in those environments.

"Every player in New Zealand has that same drive to play for the All Blacks. It's the pinnacle of our game. To be amongst that team is something I'm striving to do. The last time I played for them was when I tore my Achilles unfortunately so getting back in the team is something that drives me."

Some 17 months on from needing to be helped from the field in London, Perenara is now on the cusp of traversing that full circle journey.