All Blacks captain Kieran Read's wrist surgery will delay his return to rugby next year until April.
Read, who has been replaced as Crusaders skipper by Sam Whitelock for the 2017 Super Rugby season, underwent surgery earlier this month after being dogged by pain through the latter part of the season.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson says Read is unlikely to be available through the opening rounds in February and March.
If the 31-year-old returns in mid-April, he will miss the first seven rounds but still be free to play up to 10 games before leading the All Blacks against the British and Irish Lions in June and July.
Whitelock was already set to assume the captaincy on a fulltime basis, with Robertson keen for Read to "enjoy" playing by lightening the leadership load in 2017.
Experienced Test lock Whitelock, 28, was captain during the opening weeks this year while Read was rested.
Robertson believes the change will provide some zest for 31-year-old Read, who was dealt a heavy playing and captaincy role in 2016.
"Kieran has been an excellent captain, he is a courageous leader who the players admire and love," Robertson said.
"But this will allow Kieran to focus on just playing and enjoying himself in the Crusaders environment, rather than juggling the responsibility of being both All Blacks and Crusaders captain.
"It will also allow Sam to really take ownership of this position and influence the team in his own way."
Whitelock, an 83-Test veteran, describes his new role as a privilege.