Tori Freeman played a major part in South Newcastle's premiership last season despite not featuring in the grand final.
A powerful ball runner and relentless tackler, Freeman was outstanding for the Lions in 2018 but suffered an ACL injury in the major semi that sidelined him for the decider.
Now, having undergone knee surgery and with a couple of games in reserves under his belt, the 2017 under-23 NSW Country player of the year has a chance to help Souths defend the title.
He has been named at lock for Saturday's clash with Kurri Kurri at Townson Oval, ending a 10-month hiatus from first grade.
Lions coach Andrew Ryan is cautiously optimistic about having Freeman in the white and red uniform, especially approaching a run of six matches in five weeks which kicks off with three outings in the space of nine days.
"It's a pretty significant injury to come back from," Ryan said.
"Obviously he's a quality player, but we're just going to have to be careful with him.
"It's good to see him out there again. It's good for the club as well."
Ryan said he was unsure if his two injured props, Luke Higgins and Cameron King (wrists), would line-up for second-placed Souths this weekend after missing Sunday's 36-16 loss to leaders Western Suburbs at Harker Oval.
"I think King would be more of a chance than Higgins at this stage," the former NRL player said.
"They don't like missing out, but we don't want to risk them if they're not right."
Jacob Afflick replaces suspended winger Harry Van Dartel, who will be available for Wednesday's catch-up fixture against Central Newcastle at home.
Souths finish a busy week by visiting Macquarie at Lyall Peacock Field on August 4.
The Lions then have Wests (August 11) and Kurri (August 17) away before wrapping up the regular rounds against Cessnock at Townson Oval (August 24).
"It's a big five weeks of footy for us," Ryan said.
"It will definitely be a challenge."
Fifth-placed Kurri are set to welcome back forward Reid Alchin from suspension.
Elsewhere in round 13 on Saturday and the third-placed Pickers host Macquarie at Maitland Sportsground with both sides coming off wins.
Sunday sees fourth-placed Cessnock travel to Harker Oval to meet Wests while Central and Lakes will have their seasons on the line when they battle it out at St John Oval.
Cessnock are down playmaker Callen Edwards but pick up Joe Bromage.
Lakes have scored the services of Knights NSW Cup back-rower Cleveland McGhie with Jarron Costelloe shifting to the centres and Carl Randall dropping out.
Meanwhile, CRL Newcastle will meet either Cronulla or St Mary's in next weekend's NSW Women's Premiership semi-final. The Sharks and Saints play at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday.