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Baker's long wait over

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Sportal.co.nz     23 Feb 2012     Getty Images

Baker (23) was part of the Highlanders squad last year but a stress fracture to his back meant he did not get on the field at all.

He is likely to be selected at fullback this week, with regular fullback Ben Smith at centre, as the injury-hit Highlanders seek to make a positive start to their campaign.

"It's been a long road," Baker said. "There have been some pretty frustrating times. It's no one's fault. It's just been a bit of bad luck but it's good at last to be able to do what I'm here to do."

Baker has played in the pre-season games without any ill-effects.

"They went pretty well," he said. "I think I'm always going to have a sore back for a while but I don't think it's going to be too much of an issue any more."

Baker was also dogged by a shoulder problem during the ITM Cup with Taranaki last year - it has since settled - and he said this season was almost like a new beginning to his rugby career.

"The team has worked pretty hard and I feel like I can give back to the boys. I felt like a bit of a burden last year so now it is up to me to prove I'm capable of playing at this level. That would make me feel a lot better."

The irony is that, while Baker is on the mend, his team-mates have been joining the casualty list in alarming numbers.

Colin Slade, Siale Piutau, Kade Poki, Kenny Lynn, Shaun Treeby, Jarrad Hoeata, Ma'afu Fia are all on the injured list, prop Chris King faces a late fitness test, and England loose forward James Haskell and former All Black Tamati Ellison are still making their way back from Japan.

"You don't really know what an injured guy feels like until it happens to you," Baker said. "I feel for those guys and I hope they're back soon."

Baker's role last year was reduced to carrying bags and running drink bottles.

"I just wanted to stay involved and help out in any way I could," he said.

Baker has set himself modest goals in what is his first Super season.

"For me, it's more about working hard, doing my best and proving I'm worthy of being here."

Baker was a member of the New Zealand Under-20 World Cup winning team in 2008 and a gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games sevens in Delhi, where he first suffered his back injury."

The Highlanders were soundly beaten pre-season by the Chiefs in Queenstown but Baker is not reading too much into that result.

"We're not going to Hamilton to lose, that's for sure. We might not have won our pre-season matches but we have got a lot out of our games."

New recruit, midfielder Phil Burleigh - who was part of the Chiefs squad only two weeks ago - and wider training group winger Buxton Popoali'i are also in line to make their debuts in Hamilton.