Don’t tell Max King it’s "just a trial".
Sidelined since June after undergoing his fourth shoulder surgery at just 21 years of age, King is champing at the bit to put his reconstructed shoulder to the test against a Cowboys pack rippling with representative stars.
With Cyclone Oma lurking off the coastline, Gold Coast and North Queensland will meet for their first outings of 2019 at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
It has been 260 days since King played the last of his 12 games in 2018. Up until that point he had been an "automatic selection" according to coach Garth Brennan but now he is fighting for a spot in the top 17 for round one.
The recruitment of Kangaroos representative Shannon Boyd has added considerable depth to the Titans’ middle rotation but King gets to press his claims via one of the NRL’s toughest assignments.
A hooker as a junior, King will start at lock on Saturday, his opposition number the NRL’s most damaging runner through the middle third of the field, Cowboys wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo.
“Usually I’m pretty sweet with it. I’m probably on the other side of that where I’m a bit too reckless with coming back early,” King said of returning from his fourth bout of major shoulder surgery in the space of five years.
“I probably need to settle things down with where I’m at with rehab and what-not.
“Once the specialist and our physio gave me the green light I was fine, I’ve got full confidence in them. They’ve given me a shoulder brace but I’m fine and mentally, happy to rip in.
“First game of the year, there’s always a bit of nerves there and I suppose there will be some added pressure there but Brenno is clear in what he wants and that’s to play well defensively, keep control of the ball and compete.”
Cowboys prop Matt Scott will also make his return after undergoing surgery on his neck for a second time and will pack down alongside fellow Kangaroos prop Jordan McLean, Taumalolo and Ethan Lowe in the starting side with Scott Bolton, Corey Jensen and Francis Molo waiting on the bench.
The strength of the Cowboys’ pack made them premiership favourites this time last year and provides the perfect first-up assignment for Titans players such as King, Jack Stockwell and Bryce Cartwright to impress.
“It’s a great challenge for them. That’s the benchmark right there for our front-rowers to step up and challenge themselves individually,” said halfback Tyrone Roberts, who will captain the Titans on Saturday.
“We want to be known for our defence this year and not our attack so it’s a good stepping stone.”
For King, it finally represents the end to seven months on the sidelines.
“I’ve had an extended pre-season because it started in June so I’ve been looking forward to getting back on the football field since then,” he said.
“This weekend I’ll finally get to do that. The club’s definitely on the way up and there’s not a position in the team that’s secure yet.”
Darius Farmer and Jaxson Paulo get their first opportunities in the top grade after signing development contracts while former Warriors NRL player John Palavi, Jacob Hind and Christian Hazard are pushing for upgrades to their train-and-trial deals.
The Cowboys v Titans clash kicks off at 5pm (6pm AEDT) and will be live-streamed through NRL.com and the Titans and Cowboys websites.