After a horror 2015 where he was forced to sit out the season with a back injury after playing just a single game in Round 1, Sea Eagles prop Brenton Lawrence is ecstatic to be back where he is most comfortable – on the footy field.
Lawrence is happy to show off a significant surgical scar running from his naval to his waist, a permanent reminder of the time medicos opened him up to get to his L4 and L5 vertebrae. The lowest vertebra, the L5, has been fused to his sacrum while the disc between the L4 and L5 has been replaced.
Spinal surgery tends to be done through the front because the back of the spine contains the facet joints and spinal cord.
While he said his rehabilitation would be an ongoing process for the rest of his career "it's not as dire as it sounds", and he now feels fully fit and is relieved to be back on the field playing footy, where he belongs.
"I feel great; it's been a long recovery but I feel I've taken the necessary steps and done what I need to do," Lawrence told NRL.com.
"It's an ongoing thing now and I need to make sure I'm constantly working on all of my rehabilitation and prehabilitation before the game... to make sure that I'm not lagging behind and I'm looking after my new back.
"I just need to make sure that core strength and leg strength and glutes, all of that is optimal because I need it to be more than I would if I didn't have the surgery."
Lawrence's first serious hitout of the year came at the Downer Auckland Nines, where despite losing a few players to injury Manly progressed from their group to the quarter finals. Lawrence joked he'd have preferred a less helter skelter start to the year.
"I felt really good with the Nines. It was quite lateral though, I was hoping some of the blokes would start running forward instead of sideways but it was a good experience," he said.
"Just to put the boots on again, even last week against Cronulla, it just felt good to be playing football again, it just feels natural. The build up to the game, I just couldn't wait to get out there because that's where you're most comfortable. "
Before he hurt his back Lawrence was a certain starter for the Sea Eagles week to week but with some superstars joining the forwards in the shape of Nate Myles and Marty Taupau, combined with the emergence of Jake Trbojevic, Lawrence is back to having to fight to get into first grade.
"Eventually you've got to retire so I want to make the most of it before that has to happen. I really appreciate the fact I could be out there playing with the boys again," he said.
"There's a lot of blokes fighting for spots so I had to put myself in the mix and make sure I'm doing the right things.
"I'm not guaranteed a spot – I've gone from a position before the surgery where I had my spot and now I'm fighting for it again so that's my focus. I want it back.
"You can look at it two ways but I'm choosing to be excited about the guys that are coming in. And the guys that aren't spoken about, there's those younger guys coming up. There's a lot of movement there and I'm pretty happy with how the club's going. It's looking good, looking strong. It's going to be an exciting year."
Lawrence – under contract at Manly until 2017 – also played down any speculation over his contract (such as rumours the Roosters or Eels may be trying to get him on board for this year) and said his only focus was on getting back on the park for the Sea Eagles.
"That stuff's out of my control. I try and just control what I can influence. My focus was my body. It was a big enough procedure that it required my full attention so that's what I've done. Any talk or anything like that is out of my hands so I knew what I could control is my recovery," he said.