Outspoken Penrith five-eighth Jamie Soward has ruled himself out of the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines and said he won't challenge for the club captaincy as the Panthers resumed pre-season training this week.
After undergoing ankle surgery in early October, Soward only started running the week prior to Christmas and with a long season ahead of him the 30-year-old said he won't be fit enough to return to Eden Park for tournament kick-off on January 31.
"I just can't see myself coming back to training, running for three weeks and being fit for the season," Soward said.
"I guess that's what a lot of clubs are weighing up at the moment, who to send over to Auckland because it's such a long season. Then you also have the Indigenous All Stars and three trials on top of that so it's not worth me playing the Nines."
Despite Soward not returning to play in the Nines, a tournament which he made his initial debut in for the Panthers last year, the Wagga Kangaroos junior is happy with how his ankle is progressing.
"It's going good. The medical team is pretty happy with how [the surgery] went. I'm still getting used to running around; it just feels a little bit different," Soward said.
"I've still probably got eight weeks before I can really start getting into playing."
With Soward on track for a Round 1 start so too is halfback Peter Wallace, the Panthers captain who didn't play again in 2014 after suffering an ACL injury in Round 20.
Along with Wallace's season-ending injury, an injury crisis ripped through Penrith's ranks in 2014 leaving Soward as one of few senior players capable of captaining the club.
While he took the mountain men all the way to the Preliminary Final, Soward sees himself as a "fill-in" and is more than happy for Wallace to resume his role as the club's official on-field leader.
"As far as I'm concerned [Wallace] is the captain of the club, and even when he was injured he was still the captain of the club. I was just standing in because I think by the end of it I was the oldest bloke left," Soward laughed.
"He's a fantastic leader and to his credit – not many people know this – he was probably helping me more then I was there for him because I was still playing.
"'Wal' was still giving me advice and pre-game and half-time talks because that's just the sort of guy that he is. [The captaincy] is definitely his job."
Speaking so highly of Wallace, Soward said his relationship with his halves partner is set to wholeheartedly benefit the Panthers further in their second season together.
With Ivan Cleary's men set to be met with high expectations in the upcoming season, Soward is excited for the year ahead.
"We should be sweet. Being out there with him at training adds a little bit more excitement and for me when you get your skipper back the ship sort of feels right again," Soward said.
"We enjoy playing alongside each other and hopefully we'll have a good season this year."