Essendon ruck dynamo Sam Draper will return to full training for the first time since having groin surgery in September, giving the Bombers a massive lift ahead of the AFL season.
But the powerful ruckman is no certainty to feature in round one as he attempts to patiently build towards forming an ominous partnership with veteran recruit Todd Goldstein.
Draper had groin surgery in September after an injury that dogged the second half of his 2023 season, and is only now nearing full training.
Wednesday shapes as D-Day for Draper, with the ruckman set for his first full-contact session with the main training group.
"The last two weeks, I've been running around kicking footies, doing drills here and there with the boys ... which is great," he said on Tuesday.
"So probably the next step is that genuine training with the group, contact, stuff like that, but hitting speed, that's no issue.
"So it's just more the short, sharp stuff, I reckon. And so tomorrow's a big test for me, so I'm really excited for that."
Essendon's 2023 season nosedived after Draper, one of their most important players, was injured in round 13, and the Bombers have no plans on rushing him back.
The Bombers have an unofficial match simulation against St Kilda on February 23, then their one official hit-out against Geelong on March 1.
Draper is hoping to feature at some level before Essendon's first-round clash with Hawthorn on March 16.
"I've been trying not to think too far ahead with this injury ... taking it one week at a time, which has definitely helped," he said.
"But I definitely am aiming to play some of those practice games. Not sure what that looks like, whether that's AFL or VFL.
"Scotty (coach Brad Scott) has been really good at saying there's no pressure on when I come back, whenever I'm 100 per cent good, that's when I'll play.
"It's not like there's a big countdown to round one like it seems to be sometimes.
"I definitely am aiming for that still, but we'll see how we go."
Draper insisted Melbourne's failed one-season experiment of playing Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy together didn't cast any doubt over his ability to combine with 35-year-old Goldstein.
"Me and Andrew Phillips were playing well together before Gawn and Grundy," he said with a laugh.
"Goldy is an amazing player too, so I feel like it definitely can work.
"I'm really different to some other rucks I reckon, I can play forward and feel comfortable there.
"We can definitely be a good partnership together."
Australian Associated Press