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Like most people, North Queensland Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill thought his season was over.

Taking on the Panthers in enemy territory, the representative outside back was caught awkwardly in a tackle, with replays graphically showing his left arm being bent to a point that didn't appear to be humanly possible. 

It didn't take long for the club's medical staff to work out that O'Neill had dislocated his elbow and it appeared as though the 26-year-old would miss at least 4-6 weeks, if not the rest of the season. 

The Round 23 injury was the latest setback for the Cowboys who were already without co-captains Johnathan Thurston (shoulder) and Matt Scott (knee), but as we've seen from Paul Green's men throughout 2017, O'Neill was willing to give new meaning to the word 'brave' in a bid to help them in the finals series. 

‌"When I dislocated it, at the time the pain wasn't too bad and I didn't think that I'd actually dislocated it. I thought I might have hyperextended it, but I quickly realised it was displaced," he told after his side's 24-16 semi-final win over the Parramatta Eels.

"I was pretty shocked at the time and I expected to be in a lot of pain when the doctor pulled it back in, but that wasn't too bad. It wasn't until I got back in the dressing sheds that it started to really throb but thankfully I had a bit of pain relief to help that. 

"Early days it looked pretty bad and I know a lot of people thought that was my season done. It swelled up a fair bit so I probably did think that this might have been the end of my season. 

"The physios and everyone were really good and they actually got me back on the park within a range where I would have been a chance to return to action if the boys kept winning.

"Two weeks after it happened I was able to get back on the park. I didn't get into contact at that stage but it was at the stage where I thought it was healing quite well so I decided to start running and started to test a few things in the gym. Surprisingly it was a lot stronger than I thought it was going to be. 

"It didn't take long after that before I was able to progress really quickly, and before I knew it, I was back on the paddock."

That he was able to return earlier than expected was one thing, but what stood out was the manner in which he played in his first game back, with O'Neill running for 146 metres (his second-best return in 2017) while he also contained dangerous Eels centre Michael Jennings with relative ease.  

Making his return even more remarkable was the fact that he did it on the left side of the field, despite having played the entire season at right centre.

"It's actually pulled up pretty well. It felt good leading into the game after our last session and I didn't really feel it at all during the game so it's all positive signs," he said of his elbow. 

"It felt a bit different to start off with, but after I got into the game it felt pretty much like the right side but just on the other side of the field. 

"I felt pretty comfortable tonight and I think that's where I'll be playing for the rest of the year."

After he was initially named in the reserves ahead of last Saturday's semi-final, O'Neill looks likely to be back in the No.3 jersey for the preliminary final clash with the Roosters at Allianz Stadium this Saturday night.


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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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