Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby midfielder Sam McNicol admits there have been moments when he questioned his ability to return to the code.
"It's been a long road but I can't wait to get out there in the black and white this weekend," McNicol said two days out from the Magpies Mitre 10 Cup Championship first round clash against the Manawatu Turbos at Palmerston North's Central Energy Trust Arena tomorrow.
Coincidentally McNicol's last first class game before his battle with concussion intensified was for the Magpies against Manawatu on October 15, 2017.
It's appropriate his long-awaited return should be played on the other side of the Manawatu Gorge as he was born and raised in Feilding and his parents Alan and Julia still have relatives in Manawatu who will be in the crowd tomorrow.
McNicol's use of the term long road can easily be described as an understatement. But it's a reflection of the positive and determined approach he had in the comeback which was carefully monitored by New Zealand Rugby.
"It was more me worrying about getting my health back in check and ticking all the boxes," McNicol said.
The Napier Boys' High School old boy who represented the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in 2013 was cleared to begin pre-season training with the Chiefs at the start of the year.
The plan was for him to have a full season of club rugby but he aggravated an old wrist injury which required reconstruction surgery.
"So while the noggin was good I had to wait another eight months while the wrist was dealt with," McNicol recalled.
This meant he had only two games for his Napier Old Boys Marist club and his only pre-season outing with the Magpies was 30 minutes off the subs bench in the August 2 loss to Auckland in Cambridge.
"It was a case of monitoring the load. They didn't want to blow me out and I got through all good," 23-year-old McNicol said.
"Obviously I need more match fitness but other than that I'm 100 per cent," McNicol said.
A Hawke's Bay representative through all the grades from Ross Shield level, McNicol, enjoys the way his midfield partner, Hurricanes second five-eighth Danny Toala, plays.
"We haven't had a lot of time together. He has good communication and a good skillset. He is a promising talent and I can't wait to play with him this weekend."
McNicol, who is confident he is on track to be back in Chiefs colours next year, is predicting a physical forward tussle tomorrow.
At the same time he said it was crucial the Turbos talented backline with the likes of captain and halfback Jamie Booth and the Maori All Blacks pair of first five-eighth Otere Black and centre Rob Thompson is shut down early.
He is looking forward to the challenge of marking Thompson.
"I've marked Rob a couple of times, once for the Magpies against Canterbury and once for the Chiefs against the Highlanders. I have nothing but respect for Rob, who carries well and is a strong defender."
McNicol estimated he had six to eight concussions since 2013. Three of those came in the first half of 2016, his first year at the Chiefs after having one game for the Hurricanes the previous year.
The last of his 18 matches for the Chiefs was in May, 2017, when he was knocked out early against the Crusaders in Fiji.
Magpies head coach Mark Ozich is happy with the depth in his squad which he said had prepared well during the last four weeks.
He pointed out there will be more competition for berths when the likes of Chiefs lock Michael Allardice, Highlanders loosie Marino Mikaele-Tu'u and the Hurricanes pair of winger Jonah Lowe and prop Ben May return from injuries during the next four weeks.
The fact Maori All Blacks and Hurricanes lock Isaia Walker-Leawere and talented loosie Josh Kaifa have been named on the subs bench is another indication of the depth available this season.
Teams for the 4.35pm match:
■ Hawke's Bay Magpies: Caleb Makene, Ollie Sapsford, Sam McNicol, Danny Toala, Mason Emerson, Lincoln McClutchie, Folau Fakatava, Gareth Evans, Brendon O'Connor, Devan Flanders, Tom Parsons, Geoff Cridge, Joel Hintz, Ash Dixon (captain), Pouri Rakete-Stones.
Reserves, forwards: Kianu Kereru-Symes, Tim Farrell, Namatahi Waa, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Josh Kaifa. Backs: Zac Donaldson, Neria Fomai, Stacey Ili.
■ Manawatu Turbos: Sam Malcolm, Te Rangatira Waitokia, Rob Thompson, Hamish Northcott, Adam Boult, Otere Black, Jamie Booth (captain); Brayden Iose, Johnny Galloway, Nick Crosswell, Liam Mitchell, Fraser Stone , Paulo Leleisiuao, Sam Stewart, Fraser Armstrong.
Reserves, forwards: Nick Grogan, Fa'alelei Sione, Samuela Tawaka, Sione Tuipulotu, Sam Wasley. Backs: Griffin Culver, James Tofa, Ben Werthmuller.