Melbourne Storm lock forward Dale Finucane says superstar fullback Billy Slater is showing no ill-effects from the shoulder injury that plagued him for the past two seasons and is confident the 33-year-old will be ready to go when their 2017 campaign kicks off against the Bulldogs on March 3.
Slater missed practically the entire 2016 Telstra Premiership season after re-aggravating a shoulder injury in the Storm's Round 1 win over the Dragons – the same injury that restricted him to just seven matches in 2015.
There were fears the 2009 Clive Churchill Medallist would be forced into a premature retirement, but if his pre-season performances are anything to go by then he will be on the Storm's team sheet for next year's season-opener at Belmore.
"Billy has done the pre-season since early November and he's been there the whole time. He's been training really well," Finucane told NRL.com at the launch of the Auckland Nines at Rugby League Central.
"He's been doing all the skills and he's been doing everything that everyone else has been doing. He's been monitoring his loads around contact just because he doesn't want to do too much prior to Christmas.
"He's copped a few bumps during opposed sessions and it hasn't appeared to bother him at all so that's been a really pleasing thing to see."
Slater's absence in 2016 opened the door for superstar-in-the-making Cameron Munster to make the fullback spot his own; an opportunity the 22-year-old grabbed with both hands.
The fleet-footed custodian finished the season with four tries, 12 try assists and a whopping 129 tackle breaks, as well as just under 4,000 running metres, and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension to keep him at the club until 2019.
Finucane said it is too early to say who would play where in 2017, but early indications are that Slater will return to the No.1 jersey, while Munster could play in the centres or five-eighth, a welcome headache for Storm coach Craig Bellamy.
"I've only done the one skills session and guys have been moving around throughout the outside backs," Finucane said.
"Both of them have been lining up in playmaker roles and he (Slater) has definitely been running around at fullback, but like I said, a lot of the outside backs have been moving around so it's still too early to tell.
"Billy's great to have around the club, especially during this period of the year where we've got a lot of new guys at the club and a lot of our senior guys are away on their holidays. He drives a lot of the training standards and the talk and the communication around the club."
Slater's impending return could be the final piece of the puzzle Bellamy's team needs to go one better than their runners-up finish last season.
The minor premiers fell agonisingly short in a grand final for the ages against a Sharks side that held on for its maiden premiership in a classic decider at ANZ Stadium.
The nature of the 14-12 loss – Melbourne had a chance after the siren to snatch victory – will drive the players next season as they look to win their first title since 2012.
Finucane spent the off-season back in Bega before travelling with his partner to Europe for a month-long getaway, and revealed the heartbreaking loss was the furthest thing from his mind while on leave.
"I'm not sure whether the other players have watched the game, but I have not," the Country representative said.
"I'm sure Craig and the coaching staff would have watched the game to try to get things out of that to help develop our game plans for next year.
"I was on holidays about a week after the grand final. I put it to the back of my mind and didn't think about it too much, but I guess now that I'm back into a football environment, I sort of touch on it and look back on it a little bit.
"It drives you to go that little bit further. In 2015 we made the preliminary final and in 2016 we made the grand final, so obviously that hunger is there to win a premiership and hopefully we can take that final step in 2017."