Wellington - New Zealand's loose forward stocks have taken another hit ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour with Liam Squire expected to be sidelined for six weeks with a broken thumb.
The eight-Test Squire was considered a frontrunner for the June Test series if skipper Kieran Read and blindside flanker Jerome Kaino do not recover in time from their injuries.
But Squire only lasted 10 minutes into Friday's Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein before he was injured.
He struggled on for another 10 minutes before leaving the field.
"It is broken and he's on the plane home. He's probably looking at six weeks out for a broken thumb," coach Tony Brown told reporters after the Highlanders come-from-behind 45-41 win.
"With Kieran Read out, Liam was probably next cab off the rank (for the All Blacks). Hopefully, both Kieran and Jerome Kaino can get back in time for the Lions."
Read broke his thumb the previous week playing for the Crusaders against the Cheetahs while Kaino recently underwent knee surgery.
All three players are in a race against time to be fit for the first Lions Test on June 24.
First choice hooker Dane Coles is also under an injury cloud with both a troublesome calf and lingering concussion symptoms.