Wests Tigers hooker Matt Ballin says he will take his slow recovery from a second successive knee reconstruction 'realistically' as he hopes to make a return to NRL action in Round 1 against former Tigers rake Robbie Farah.
Farah himself is under a cloud with a biceps injury but Ballin – who had nothing for praise for the now-departed favourite son of Leichhardt – is confident of being ready to face Farah's Rabbitohs on Friday March 3 at ANZ Stadium.
"Having to go through the process again it's been challenging mentally and physically but I'm feeling really good at the moment," Ballin said at Liverpool Hospital after performing Santa duties with clubmates, handing out Christmas gifts donated by members to hospital-bound kids.
"I'm doing everything the physio wants me to do at this stage so I'm giving myself the best chance. It's more so I just have to pull the reins back a little bit and take it easier than push harder sometimes. But it's going well, I'm really happy."
Ballin is running freely and changing direction – one of the major steps in an AVL recovery – but hasn't set a specific target date to return to full contact training.
"They're trying to not let me get too far ahead of myself so I turn up at training and the medical staff have been great at keeping me focused on that session, and going through the two nine-month injuries was probably why they do that.
Ballin nominated up-and-coming Tigers rake Jacob Liddle and new recruit Matt McIlwrick as players that'd do a good job in the hooker role but said he wouldn't take any undue risks to get back on the field to ward off competition for his spot.
"I'm realistic too, I'm not going to be doing anything silly. I'm just going to be getting out there as quickly as I can and in the meantime I'm trying to teach those young guys some stuff," Ballin said.
"But when I'm watching them I'm learning stuff off them probably more than what they're learning off me at the moment!"
The former Sea Eagle was hoping to be able to form a combination with the club's exciting playmaking roster of Mitch Moses, Luke Brooks and James Tedesco. While he conceded whichever hooker wears the black, white and gold in 2017 will be primarily focused on delivering good service to the young halves, coach Jason Taylor still wants the dummy-halves to take whatever opportunities are presented.
"He's talked to the three of us [hookers] and said when there's an opportunity he wants us to take it," Ballin said.
"If teams are loading up on our halves which they will be there's opportunity for us to run as well."
Ballin also revealed he'd had a recent chat with Farah, who he was certain would be an asset at the Rabbitohs.
"I saw him a little while ago and he was upset he hurt his bicep but was pretty confident he'd be back," Ballin said.
"He's got a lot to prove and I wish him all the best; he's had a fantastic career and he deserves to play some great footy and he'll do that at Souths."
Ballin also believed that had things worked out differently in 2016 he could have formed a great combination with Farah at Concord before the latter's departure.
"I would have loved to play with him at the club – I thought we would have made a great combination but it never happened," Ballin said.
"He was always wonderful to me, he was really welcoming to me in my first day there, he had a smile on his face when he saw me and whenever we chatted about things, the game or away from footy he was always good to me so I wish him all the best."
In terms of 2017, Ballin is optimistic of getting some trial footy under his belt but will be following his specialist's orders.
"I'd love to be back Round 1 but when I've had two knee reconstructions you've just got to listen to what the knee tells you and if it's sore one day you don't run," he said.
"The medical staff have been great evaluating the knee each day I come in and there's more good days than bad at the moment. As early as I can be back I'll be there."