Luke Metcalf could be forgiven for feeling like a stranger at the party he helped organise at the end of last season.
A key contributor to the Warriors' impressive 2023 campaign – winning 10 of the 12 games he played in through the second half of the year – a hamstring injury suffered in Round 26 meant the five-eighth was left to watch from afar as the club ended a five-season finals drought.
That included him missing out on their first home final in 16 years, which ended in a victory over the Knights at a sold out Go Media Stadium to book a spot in the preliminary final against eventual grand finalists Brisbane.
"It was a bitter pill. I got all the way to the end and then fell down," Metcalf told NRL.com.
It was heartbreaking and while I was so excited for the boys, I remember watching the first finals game feeling so much FoMO [fear of missing out].Luke Metcalf
"Then the next week at home against Newcastle and just hearing the crowd...I would have loved to have been out there.
"But now I have that experience of playing NRL week in, week out, if I can keep my body healthy, I know I have a lot to offer.
"With how it finished last year for me, I am just so excited for this season."
Metcalf making a mark
While playing a prominent role in a finals charge was a new experience for Metcalf, dealing with a hamstring, unfortunately, was not.
The 24-year-old has been dogged by persistent hamstring injuries throughout his young career, including a serious one which caused him to miss the first three months of the 2023 season and head to the USA to seek the help of reconditioning specialist Bill Knowles.
Before embarking on the trip, Metcalf also picked the brain of former Manly teammate Tom Trbojevic, who himself has spent time with Knowles to address hamstring problems.
"I spoke to 'Turbo' and got a few tips. There weren't too many similarities with us, because obviously he is a big, tall rangy fella compared to me, but it was real specific stuff," Metcalf said.
"When I was over with Bill, we spoke about other athletes too and what their issues were and what we could associate to me.
"It's amazing the little stuff he picks up from watching you run or do a squat... The stuff I learned over there is a lot of what I am doing now and my program now is based on that.
"That trip meant we knew how to go about it and what we could do better this time."
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Among the changes made to his training regime, Metcalf has doubled the number of leg-specific workouts he does each week to five, in a bid to strengthen everything around his troublesome hammys.
Already up 3kgs on his 85kg playing weight from last year, the Coffs Harbour-born flyer said it's got him feeling more confident in his body and has only added to his speed off the mark.
"It is the heaviest I have ever been because I have been in the gym all off-season and I feel like that is going to pay dividends," Metcalf added.
"A couple of kilos can make a massive difference. I think it might have actually made me faster too, having that added muscle around the glutes and stuff."
After both being impacted by serious injuries last season, Metcalf and veteran No.6 Te Maire Martin never had the chance to compete with each other for a spot alongside Shaun Johnson in 2023.
Now ahead of the new season it's set to become a three-way duel thanks to the return of Chanel Harris-Tavita from a year out of the game, with all three players expected to have the chance to audition in the halves during the club's Pre-season Challenge matches against the Wests Tigers and Dolphins.