The future of injured Melbourne Storm and Queensland Maroons fullback Billy Slater remains unclear after the 33-year-old revealed he was hopeful rather than confident that he would return to the field in 2017.
Slater managed just seven matches last year before succumbing to a season-ending shoulder injury, and despite being fit for the start of 2016, missed all but the Round 1 win over the Dragons after re-injuring the same shoulder.
The 2009 Clive Churchill Medallist had to watch on as the Storm suffered a heartbreaking 14-12 loss to the Sharks in Sunday’s Telstra Premiership grand final, but is hopeful he can help them go one better in 12 months' time.
“I'd love to give you a definitive answer, but it's really hard [to be confident either way],” he said after watching his team-mates fall two points short of a miraculous grand final win.
“What I've gone through the last two seasons [was hard] and the advice I was given at the start of the year was quite confronting, so for me to come back, I'm going to have to be 100 percent.
“I'm more than likely playing next year, I still have that drive to compete and that hunger to better myself as a player. I want to play well, and if all goes well on the path that it's going, I'll be there next year.”
The advice Slater spoke of came before his second bout of shoulder surgery, with the doctor giving him a blunt message that he simply could not ignore.
“If I didn't get it done then, it could have been long-term damage,” he revealed.
“Once I got the surgery, the surgeon was really happy with how it went, and if it all healed, he said it would be a good recovery.
“It is quite confronting when someone says to you ‘if you didn't come to me now, I don't know if I could have fixed it’.”
The severity of Slater's injury has been slightly tempered with the superstar No.1 confirming that he would have been a chance to play in the finals series; but only if they were played a month later.
Instead, he has chosen to play it safe and focus on making sure his body is fully fit before he decides whether to return in 2017.
“To be honest, if the grand final was four six weeks away, I might have pushed, but I need the next five months to really strengthen my shoulder and give it the best opportunity to be as strong as it can,” he said.
"I've been running for about two-and-a-half months, so I'm feeling really good actually.
“I haven't been doing much contact – in fact I haven't been passing the ball much – but I'll get back to that in the summer, and come February, if everything's going well, I'll be back out there.”
Storm centre Will Chambers said it had been a revelation having Slater mentor the outside backs during his time on the sidelines, but admitted he would prefer to have him by his side on the footy field with two competition points on the line.
“We've got a guy named Billy Slater who’ll come back in somewhere and he’ll be a handy player to get back into our team,” Chambers said.
“He's been a good coach for us for a while, but unfortunately he's had a few years out. We're keen for him to get back in there.”