Broncos back-rower Matt Gillett is confident he can be the player he once was but must first get past the nerves of playing for the first time since suffering a neck injury he feared could end his career.
Gillett has been named at lock for Saturday’s trial against the Gold Coast Titans at Cbus Super Stadium and despite some lingering doubts is confident his body is up to the rigours of playing in the NRL.
Taking the reins for the first time as Broncos coach, Anthony Seibold has named a strong side for the final pre-season hit-out with five-eighth Anthony Milford and the injured Tevita Pangai Jnr the only big names not expected to see any minutes against the Titans.
Gillett will play as many minutes as his body allows but it will be the mental hurdle ahead of the first tackle or hit-up that will present the greatest challenge.
The 30-year-old unknowingly played with a neck fracture for a month before the extent of the damage was fully realised after the round five game against Newcastle.
The one silver lining was that rest – and not surgery – was the remedy but he didn’t escape the surgeon’s knife altogether, booking in for a shoulder reconstruction once he realised his season was over.
Players such as Gorden Tallis, Matt Scott and Ethan Lowe have struggled to scale the same heights following serious neck injuries and Gillett knows it may take time before he starts to feel like his old self again.
“There have been thoughts going through the head of what could happen and stuff like that but as soon as I go out there and train and get into game-mode my head clears and you’re out there just playing footy again,” said Gillett, a veteran of 183 games for the Broncos.
“It might take me a month or two to get back to where I was but no expectations, I’ve just got to go out there and rip in.
“I’ll be a bit nervous to get back out there and get back into the swing of things but I’m fully prepared.
“It’s been a long road but I'm very excited. I got a bit nervous in the team meeting this morning when they put up the opposition of who we are playing. That's when you get that feeling coming back of preparing for a game.
“The body’s in good nick at the moment so I’ll just try and make a few tackles, take a few runs. I'm not expecting too many big things but excited to get out there with the boys.”
A father of two, Gillett gave an emotional interview to Channel Nine following the news of the neck fracture as the enormity of what he had been through hit home.
Good friend and Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough saw the interview too but believes Gillett has done the work necessary to recapture the form that made him the Dally M second-rower of the year in 2016 and 2017.
“That puts football into perspective of how small it is in your life, especially with kids and being able to raise a family and run around,” McCullough told NRL.com.
“When that gets put in jeopardy it’s certainly an emotional time not just for him but his whole family around him. They’re all riding the wave of emotion with him.
“He’s worked really hard over the past 10 or 11 months to get back into this position and if he’s not right to go he wouldn’t be playing.
“Building that confidence up will be a big indication for him but I’d like to think he would (get back to that level).”
The injury to Pangai and the emergence of teen sensation David Fifita means that Gillett will make his comeback in the unfamiliar No.13 jersey on Saturday and is prepared to learn a new life in the middle if that’s what the team requires.
“Tevita getting injured wasn’t ideal for the team so I’ve got to fill in there, whether that’s one week, two weeks or three," Gillett explained.
“I’m used to right-edge back row so I’ve got a role to play there which is different.
“I had my first little hit-out there today and found myself running around a bit crazy but I’ve just got get used to that role as quick as I can and Saturday is a good chance to nail it.
“Ideally we will have Tevita there fit and healthy and me at right back row. I’ve just got to learn my role and play my role for the team but I’m confident when Tevita comes back I’ll shift out to the right edge.”