The Melbourne Storm have confirmed superstar fullback Billy Slater is on track for Round 1 of this year's NRL premiership with optimism growing he will make his long-awaited return at next month's Auckland Nines pre-season tournament.
The Queenslander has not played since Game 2 of last year's State-of-Origin series with shoulder surgery wrecking his 2015 campaign.
But the 32-year-old, who last year re-signed for a further two seasons, is training strongly and well on the way to re-establishing himself as the game's premier fullback.
"Bill has been great; he started with the original training group back on November 2, so he is in great nick," Storm football manager Frank Ponissi said yesterday.
"The medical staff have been really cautious with him in bringing him back in terms of the contact (at training).
"He's been running since day one and the contact has been getting more and more each week.
"We'll see how he will go in the next few weeks, but we're very confident he'll be definitely available for Round 1 and hopefully the Nines.
"That (the Nines) is his target and, at this stage, there is nothing to suggest that he can't (play), but he's not confirmed either way as of yet."
The Storm's full squad is now back in training after Kiwi test stars Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris and Kevin Proctor reported for duty this week.
They were the last players to return with national duties delaying the start of their pre-season campaign.
Skipper Cameron Smith is also training well, buoyed by a good break and his earliest pre-season start in almost a decade.
"It is the first time he has been back before Christmas since 2007, I think it was," Ponissi said.
"Just his presence around the place is greatly appreciated by everyone.
"So he'll benefit from a longer pre-season than normal."
Halfback Cooper Cronk remains out of contract beyond the end of 2016 as speculation about his future continues to swirl.
Although it is believed Storm bosses are comfortable with the ongoing dialogue between club and Cronk's management in the bid to keep him at Melbourne.