Whare says he's ready for Test return
It's almost 12 months to the day since Dean Whare snapped his ACL in a freak training accident having just returned from a calf injury but he has assured Kiwis coach David Kidwell that he is still the same player who last represented New Zealand in 2015.
Restricted to a sole game in Round 2 due to a calf injury, Whare's 2016 season came to an abrupt stop when he suffered the serious knee injury in the lead-up to his return in Round 9, his two young children helping to keep his mind off the long road to recovery that would follow.
Forced to resume his NRL career on the wing after the undeniable claims of Waqa Blake and Tyrone Peachey to start the year, Whare was back in the centres by Round 6 and was on Sunday named by Kidwell in the 20-man squad to face the Kangaroos in Canberra on Friday.
It is often said that players don't reach their peak until 12 months after making their comeback from ACL injuries but the 27-year-old Panther says he is as fast and as strong as at any other time in his career.
"My speed's there, my strength's there, definitely the confidence is building with the teammates around me," Whare told NRL.com, whose last Test for New Zealand came in the 2015 series against England in England.
"It's always a privilege being able to put that black jersey on and I'm just trying to get consistent footy now.
"To play that Anzac Test would be an awesome experience and great progress for where I've come in the last 12 months."
Given how well the Panthers performed in 2016 and the depth in the outside backs Whare admitted that he had moments where he worried whether he would be able to fight his way back into the team and fit into the chemistry coach Anthony Griffin had created.
A humiliating loss in Round 1 to the Dragons was hardly the welcome back he was hoping for but a double against the Wests Tigers in Round 2 was a timely boost of confidence after Whare had also endured an injury-interrupted season in 2015.
"It was very frustrating for myself, not getting to play any footy but also relaxing at the same time. I got 12 months to rest out of the game and get my rehab right," Whare said.
"I didn't have to come to training every day, three days a week for the first couple of months and then got ready for pre-season.
"I was just spending as much time as I could with my family when I usually couldn't on the weekends and after-school stuff. My family kept me really grounded and really hungry to play again.
"At the start of the year I was trying to fight to get a position so trying to get as much confidence as I can for myself with the knee injury. Once I got that pretty early it was just trying to get combinations with the young guys.
"The knee's feeling 100 per cent now and it's just getting back into the rhythm again and trying to fit into the team the best I can."
Although he has earned selection in the Kiwis squad how Whare would fit into the final 17 remains something of a mystery.
With Jordan Rapana all but guaranteed one wing spot New Zealand coach David Kidwell must now decide on the make-up of the rest of his three-quarter line. Jordan Kahu has been playing in the centres and on the wing for the Broncos, David Fusitu'a has been doing likewise for the Warriors with Whare and Panthers teammate Dallin Watene-Zelezniak also vying for a starting spot.
Kahu was fullback and Rapana and Fusitu'a the wings for New Zealand in their loss to Australia in the Four Nations Final last November but the successful return of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from injury means Kahu will have to be otherwise deployed in the backline.