Johnathan Thurston has declared he will be fit and firing for the North Queensland Cowboys in round one with his rehabilitated shoulder already almost back to full strength.
The 34-year-old co-captain, who will retire at the end of the 2018 Telstra Premiership, will take his place for the Cowboys in what is expected to be a sold-out trial against the Melbourne Storm at Suncorp Stadium on February 23, which also doubles as a testimonial match for Thurston and Cameron Smith.
A fortnight later he will play his 300th NRL game, against the Sharks in Townsville in the season opener, while also playing his 271st NRL game for the Cowboys to break the record of club legend Matthew Bowen.
Thurston partially tore his rotator cuff in the closing moments of the Anzac Test. He recovered in time for the clash with the Parramatta Eels in round 14, but then tore it completely while playing for Queensland in Origin II.
He is six months into his rehab after surgery and on track to start his final season in the NRL fully fit.
"I am extremely keen to get back into the swing of things," Thurston told NRL.com.
"I spoke to the surgeon a few weeks ago and he is happy with my progress.
"I have a full range in the shoulder now and I am close to 100 per cent strength wise.
"I'm looking at another month or six weeks of catching up to do but apart from that, strength wise it will be fine."
Cowboys physiotherapist Steve Sartori said because of Thurston's age and the size of the tear and surgery, the club had pushed back full contact "just to be safe".
"After Christmas he will come back and do everything. Until then he will do some modified contact and skills training, so everything except full contact which he will fold into in January," Sartori said.
"He will definitely be playing in his testimonial in February and we will see how we go getting him some minutes in a trial game before that.
"Having six months out of the game, for the rest of his body, is going to be a blessing for him.
"This is the first full pre-season he has done for nine years so he is going to benefit from the extra work in the gym.
"We just have to make sure he is as strong as he can possibly be for February, and then maintain that through the year."
Thurston said it was tough sitting out most of the year and not being able to play a part in the team's run to the grand final.
But he is just glad the physical pain of recovery, which involved sleeping in a recliner chair for two months, is behind him.
"It was torture, but I am one of the lucky ones where I can get treatment [on the shoulder] every day and put my focus into it, whereas a lot of people don't have that luxury," he said.
"You'd do your best to get a good night's sleep while trying to sleep upright in the recliner and trying to control the pain. You'd roll on it and it would wake you up because of the pain. It was a tough couple of months in that recliner, but I'm glad it is all behind me now."
Thurston's first major game back will be the testimonial match in support of charities.
"Me and Smithy are both stoked that the NRL and the two clubs afforded us the generous offer to have this testimonial," Thurston said.
"It is a grand final rematch and it is a fitting place for me to have it at Suncorp Stadium, where I have had a lot of great memories in a Maroons jersey.
"I won't have too many more games there so it will be nice to get a packed house for our main game heading into the season.
"Both teams will have their best sides on the paddock and it will be a nice way for me and Smithy to say 'thank you' to the fans who have supported us over so many years."
Thurston took "immense pride" in North Queensland's finals charge without himself and Matt Scott, but insisted no one would be resting on their laurels in 2018 after defying the odds.
"It was a rollercoaster ride for the team with the injuries that we faced but we have a great squad who did a lot of great things," Thurston said.
"Whoever was asked to come into the team did their job to the best of their ability. We saw a lot of boys grow, and we'll need to make sure they continue to grow over the next couple of years so the club is in safe hands when myself, Matty Scott and Gavin Cooper are long gone.
"The club is in a really good position. I've got one year to go and I'm excited about what's ahead."