Sharks centre Jack Bird insists wayward fullback Ben Barba will return to the club after a drugs suspension and be just as good if not better than he was in helping guide the club to a maiden premiership through 2016.
The former Bulldog and Bronco copped a 12-game ban for a second strike for recreational drug use – picked up after the team's 2016 Grand Final win – and was subsequently granted a release by the club to deal with personal issues.
However the door remains ajar for the 27-year-old to return to the club as soon as next year and could feasibly play a role in the club's attempt to defend its 2017 title.
"Benny will be back and he'll be back better than ever," said Bird, who expects to remain at centre with winger Val Holmes to fill Barba's shoes at fullback in the short term.
"I know he will be and we need him back and he will be back and like I said he'll be better than he was before," Bird added.
Speaking at the launch of the 2017 Downer NRL Auckland Nines at Rugby League Central at Moore Park, Bird also said he had sent a message of support to Barba, who flew to a rehab facility in Thailand following the suspension.
"Obviously I'm going to support him, he's one of my good mates," Bird said.
"I'm not going to let him [go] astray and just leave him behind. He's doing well and it's good to hear. Like I said before he'll be back 100 per cent and back ready to go.
"He got us to a grand final so he obviously means a lot to our team and to our club and to the players and to the fans. We will miss him the first three months of the footy season but I'll say it again, we'll get him back."