When I opened up last year about my return from neck surgery, it was all about regaining confidence.

Throughout my entire rugby league career, I had never suffered such a serious injury until then.

Unfortunately for me, to get back to where I needed to be (physically, mentally and from a game perspective), was difficult. I constantly felt like I was chasing my tail and running around in circles.

I suppose that is what happens when you miss a large majority of the pre-season, as I did during the 2017-18 summer – I was miles behind everyone else at the Wests Tigers and simply couldn’t catch up to them.

It’s a key reason why I struggled so much.

By the time I realised just how far off the pace I was, it was too late. I couldn’t make up the ground that I needed to.

As frustrating as it was to accept, I knew I had to swallow my pride and put it behind me. Mid-way through 2018, it was all about getting ready for a fresh start.

There aren’t too many rugby league players that look forward to day one of pre-season training. It’s non-stop running, lifting heavy weights daily and putting in hours and hours of skill work.

But for me, I couldn’t have been more excited. It was my chance to be back on a level playing field with everyone else.

And as you would expect, my pre-season started weeks before we officially came back, because I wanted to do everything I possibly could not just to be at the same pace as everyone else, but I also wanted to get ahead in certain areas.

I can honestly say this is the fittest, fastest and strongest I have felt after a summer of pre-season training.

I spent all last year trying to chase down an unattainable goal, but a clean state has given me an opportunity to get back to full fitness.

Things didn’t go the way I wanted to last year, and much of that was outside my control. I know that by the end of last year, the coach was a bit off me. It was what it was and eventually I realised there was nothing I could do about it.

But when news surfaced over our break period, that Michael Maguire would be taking over as senior coach, it was kind of like the icing on the cake for me in terms of my return to football.

As many would know, I’d previously played for Michael at South Sydney, and I played my best football underneath him including 2014 when we won the NRL Premiership.

I played State of Origin football that same year for Queensland, before making the move up to the Gold Coast 12 months later.

‘Madge’ is a very hands-on coach. He wants the best for his players and if he sees anything in your game where he can think he can improve you, he’s willing to work as hard as it takes to help you turn that weakness into a strength.

I’ve never met a coach who watches hours and hours of video, with players as much as he does.

He doesn’t leave that up to other coaching staff, because he enjoys being part of that process and genuinely working with the players to make us better.

It’s really hard to describe but he takes everything that all the good coaches are doing and takes it to the next level. He’s intense and thorough with his coaching style and I guess that is why he is one of the most respected men in the game.

When he took over at South’s, I didn’t know what I was in for.

I didn’t necessarily turn up in 2012 in the best condition and I paid for it that preseason.

Thankfully, I’ve learnt a few things since then. When I knew that Madge was coming to the club, I certainly made sure I showed up in the best possible condition I could.

And it’s not like, because Madge and I have history, that I’m just expecting to play. It’s nothing like that at all. I just know that Madge is as fair as they come and that if you push your case for selection, he’ll reward you with a spot in his team.

At this stage of my career, that’s all I’m asking for. An opportunity to show that my best football is still capable of playing in the NRL.

As I said, it’s been a difficult two years for me and I’m looking forward to putting all that behind me.

There was certainly some difficult periods. I constantly questioned whether I thought I still had what it takes to play this game.

The main thing that made me struggle last year was my conditioning and strength – it just never caught back up to where it needed to be. I came to the Wests Tigers to play NRL football and help this club climb back up the premiership ladder.

But for most of the year, I was restricted to playing reserve grade as I sought form and fitness, which is just where I did not want to be.

I don’t know how to put it. I was lost. I was at a lose for a while and as I shared, it got to a point where the coaches and I had conversations about me potentially moving on and finding another club.

When Ivan decided to move on and we signed Madge, I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ve got a new coach here, a coach that doesn’t have his mind made up about me and he’s going give me just as much of a chance as anyone else.”

With the new changes came optimism and hope, and my fears of feeling lost no longer worried me.

Because I just knew that with a full pre-season under my belt, I could be a different player.

I know who I am and I know what I can do on the footy field. I just needed that opportunity.

As I said, there were a lot of question marks and a lot of doubt for a long time about whether I’d be staying or going. I think it’s just probably fair to say, if Ivan Cleary had stayed at the club for 2019, I probably would’ve moved on.

It all unfolded the way that it did and it seems to have worked out well for everybody, so you can’t complain about that. I’m happy with where I’m at now.

Again, I’ve known Madge for a long time and I’ve seen him do it with many players, just find a way to get the best out of players, that’s what he does.

Purely because he loves winning and he loves to see his players succeeding because he wants the best for the players and wants the best from the players.

That was another exciting prospect – I knew what he would do for me, but I also knew what he was going to be able to do for everyone else.