Ahead of his first representative match since a career-threatening neck injury, Cowboys and Kangaroos prop James Tamou has described his early-season games as not up to first-grade standard and says he thought he'd never represent his state or country again.
Tamou had bone shaved off a vertebra in his neck late last year after persistent nerve issues regularly affected his on-field performances.
It was a long and concerning off-season for the 26-year-old who still couldn't lift weights shortly before the start of the 2015 season and was worried he may never even play first grade again.
"Personally I thought I wasn't first-grade material," Tamou told NRL.com of his early-season form.
"I wasn't going into tackles like a first grader would, I was hesitant, I still wasn't that confident, there was still that thought weighing me down where I thought 'something's going to happen', I was going to go into a tackle or hit-up wrong and something's going to happen."
Not expecting to be anywhere near the frame for the Cowboys' top squad for Round 1, Tamou was asked by North Queensland coach Paul Green to play a trial for Intrust Super Cup side the Northern Pride and got through about 20 minutes in each half – something of a surprise given he was well below his usual playing weight and not able to train properly.
"It was pretty tough – being called upon to play Round 1, a few weeks out I thought 'I'm no hope'. I was still a bit stiff, I'd lifted no weights, I was weak, I was 110 kilos and I usually play at 114 or 115 so I thought I was no hope."
Tamou said he was "pretty happy" with how he went in the trial and started to think Round 1 was a realistic goal, but after three straight losses to start the NRL season both the Cowboys and Tamou were doing it tough.
"It got to the point where I was ruling rep footy out. I just wanted to concentrate on my own form and club footy. Rep footy was beyond, it didn't cross my mind. That's how serious the injury was. I just really wanted to concentrate on myself."
Tamou said he still pulls up stiff after games and has a lot of extra rehab to do on the injury to make it week-to-week – something he expects will continue for the rest of his career.
"Each game since [Round 1] is one of those ones where you have to take everything bit by bit, I can't just go into a game not doing the rehab I have to do each week because of my neck. That rehab I probably have to do each week for the rest of my life. I've just accepted that.
"There's always risk of further damage – the injury's still there and I'm not 100 per cent and probably never will be but I'm better than what I was.
"The last month I feel like I'm coming into pretty good form, I'm cracking out more minutes, week by week it's getting a bit better so if I can carry on that, keep doing what I'm doing and building on that I'll be right."
Tamou is relieved not to have had any burners or other forms of reoccurrence of the injury so far this year and is getting over the hesitancy that prevented him going into tackles and hit-ups at full tilt at the start of the season.
"It was only natural I guess coming from neck surgery and thinking of all these things that could happen in a game. I was training and testing it out and everything was coming out good but you can never fully test it until you're in a rugby league match."