WELLINGTON The injury cloud hanging over the All Blacks in the buildup to the British and Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand has lifted somewhat with several front-line players including centre Sonny Bill Williams regaining fitness.
Williams has been cleared of concussion symptoms and was named to start for the Auckland Blues in their Super Rugby clash against South Africa's Stormers in Cape Town on Friday.
Williams was one of several All Blacks facing injury concerns before Steve Hansen names his squad to play the Lions in the first test next month.
Otago Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, who has been out of action for eight weeks with a hamstring injury, has also been cleared for Saturday's clash with the Western Force in Perth.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown also said that All Blacks fullback Ben Smith, who missed their trip to South Africa and Western Australia with an ankle injury, was expected to be available for their match against the New South Wales Waratahs on May 27.
Hansen has said he was not overly concerned about the mounting injury toll but the status of hooker Dane Coles remained an issue. The 30-year-old was battling knee and calf injuries before being diagnosed with concussion, which has kept him out for almost two months.
However, both Coles and winger Nehe Milner-Skudder could join their Hurricanes team mates in South Africa next week or against the Western Force on June 3, said coach Chris Boyd.
"Nehe is running with a change of direction," Boyd told reporters. "He won't play this weekend but the question is whether he comes to Africa or joins us in Perth.
"Colesy is the same. He's progressing quite nicely around his (concussion) protocols on his return to play. There is no recurrence of the calf ... so it has been very encouraging."
Boyd said conditioning was probably the key factor in the timing of their return and that they could potentially be held back until the Hurricanes face the Waikato Chiefs on June 9.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read (thumb) and fellow loose forwards Liam Squire (thumb) and Jerome Kaino (knee), however, are still sidelined, with all three not expected back until the Lions have arrive in New Zealand for their 10-match tour.
Read told local media last week that while he might not play again before the Lions match he had enough experience to be well prepared for the first test in Auckland on June 24.
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)