Wests Tigers hooker Matt Ballin isn't concerned with simply making a return from back-to-back season-ending knee injuries, hinting he'd like to extend his NRL career if things go to plan in 2017.
The 33-year-old played just two NRL matches for the Tigers last season before he tore his ACL against the Broncos in what was a repeat of the injury that cut short his Sea Eagles career in 2015.
The likeable rake opted for a more traditional form of surgery last time around and says his body is feeling good ahead of his 11th NRL season.
Ballin confirmed he would sit out the Tigers' pre-season trial against the Cowboys on Friday night, instead targeting either Round 1 or 2 for his return to rugby league.
"It's been a long 18 months with the two surgeries, but I feel like I've come out of it really well and I've had a great team behind me. I feel stronger and better for it, and I feel like I know my body a lot better," Ballin said.
"Sometimes these surgeries work and sometimes they don't. Last time we did everything possible to give the knee the best chance to heal, but it just didn't heal.
"The first one was a cadaver, so a donor Achilles tendon. That's probably a bit of a newer operation. It's supposed to take six months to get back. This one was a patella graft. It's maybe a better success rate – I don't know – but this one seems to have healed well so far.
"The knee feels great. I've been out doing field sessions for the last month. Contact has been more so lately, and it feels strong. But for me it's mainly getting my timing and my confidence back with playing footy again."
That confidence, he said, has nothing to do with overcoming any mental demons. Instead, it's about returning to the footy that saw him win two premierships with the Sea Eagles and represent the Maroons.
"It's not really with the knee, I think it's mainly the confidence of playing footy and performing on the field the way you want to," he said.
"For me, the knee feels really stable. The knee has no issues at all. I've done pretty much everything – I've been tackled, I've had my legs pinned, I've been tackling people, running the ball – so there's no issue with the knee with that.
"It's more so being confident enough to perform at NRL level and play the games that I need to be able to play and not just be there for a couple of games but be there for the whole year. The rehab process has been really thorough and at the moment I'm just getting the K's in the legs and building up my endurance.
"At the moment I feel really confident with it so [my return] will just depend on availability and what they (the coaches) want to do. The conservative road would be reserve grade and then first grade after that, but it all depends on how I'm going."
Whether he returns in reserve grade or the NRL, Ballin isn't sure if he will be able to play 80 minutes straight away or whether he'll have to ease his way back in.
Regardless, the 33-year-old says he'd love to play on beyond 2017; his dreams of extending his career helped in part by the extended lay-offs that saw him avoid the physical demands of weekly competition.
"The physio and I will have to talk about that (playing 80 minutes)," he said.
"But for me, it's about getting out there and having a bit of a platform to start from with reduced time, and then gradually more time as we go on. With a knee reconstruction, that's how we generally work. You come back at a lower rate and gradually build yourself up.
"I'd love to play on. I love footy. I'd play as long as I could. The silver lining behind the injury is that it makes the body fresher and you don't cop that week in week out hammering that hookers get every week."