Although the Titans first trial games of 2016 after three months away, after the Auckland Nines on February 8-9, injured duo Will Zillman and Ryan Simpkins are as excited as anyone.
One month into their modified training programs, the pair are looking to put a frustrating year of injury behind them, with both players set to return to full health early in the New Year.
For Simpkins, it was a particularly disappointing debut season with his home club after returning from three seasons at Penrith.
The former Titans under-20s captain made his club debut against the Panthers in round two, putting together a string of impressive performances before rupturing his ACL against his former club in round seven just five weeks later after establishing himself as a valuable utility forward in Neil Henry’s squad.
He was the first of many Titans to suffer a season-ending injury, requiring a knee reconstruction and being forced to watch from the sidelines for a long four and a half months. That aspect of the injury he found just as difficult as the physical rehab.
“It was tough seeing the boys going through the ups and downs of the year and knowing that there was no chance of me coming back,” Simpkins said.
“I just tried to look towards the future and try to get right for as early as possible.
The grind of being in the rehab group for an extended period has been difficult at times, but Simpkins is now just a few months away from joining his teammates in training again.
“It has been a slow process, but it seems like everything is on track at the moment which is good,” he said.
“It’s been over seven months since the operation now and they generally say it’s around nine months until you can play again, so hopefully around Christmas time I’ll be OK and should be all good for our first trial game.”
Although the effects of a long-term injury can often translate to life outside of football, with a young child at home and house renovations to keep him occupied, Simpkins has had a welcome distraction.
“It has helped me take my mind off it a fair bit, although it was a bit hard at the start to help out with my knee, but once it got better I was able to give more of a hand,” Simpkins said.
“Getting home from training and there being something else to keep me focused on and not just thinking about playing each week, it was a welcome distraction you could say.”
For Simpkins’ teammate Zillman, after a couple of aborted preparations to return to the action in the second half of the season, post-season surgery was hopefully the solution to the problems he has had for several seasons with a bulging disk in his back that had restricted him for the majority of 2015.
The Titans speedster did not take the field again after the round 11 bye, despite numerous efforts to get back and help his teammates, making him the second Titan to be sidelined for the rest of the season.
Zillman said the injury became too hard to overcome, culminating in a frustrating second half of the year.
“After a hard game or training session it would become quite sore for a few days and it got to the point where it wouldn’t warm up anymore and I just needed to do something about it,” he said.
“It was frustrating because I always thought I was just two or three weeks away from getting back and then I would go backwards again. Nothing was working like it had in the past which just meant it had got to that stage where I had to go under the knife.”
Having managed his way through the injury in the past, Zillman said the surgery has already had a positive effect.
“It’s going a lot better now, I had a procedure done right at the end of the season so it’s been three months post-op now and it’s feeling a lot better. I hadn’t had any procedures on it in the past few years and was getting away with it but the idea of the surgery was to knock it on the head once and for all and hopefully it stays that way.”
Having been the first two Titans to go down with season-ending injuries in 2015, Zillman and Simpkins played just 16 games between them. With healthy bodies and a new season, Zillman said it is not only a new start for him and Simpkins, but for the football club as well.
“It really is a new beginning for the club,” he said.
“We’ve got an exciting new training facility being built, a group of new coaching staff and almost half the squad are new or guys coming up from the under-20s, so it’s a very exciting time for the club.”