FORGOTTEN Dragons playmaker Drew Hutchison is set to make a long-awaited return to rugby league this weekend after recovering from an ACL injury suffered during the pre-season.
The 22-year-old Albion Park-Oak Flats product ruptured the knee ligament during a routine training session a week before Christmas last year and underwent a gruelling eight months of rehabilitation.
After coming onto the scene in 2015, the Eagles junior admitted while the injury has been a setback, it has allowed him to get back at the right time of the season.
"It was definitely a goal to get back before the season ended," Hutchison told NRL.com.
"At the start we thought it might have been a whole year but the more I was able to train the more belief around the club I could get back."
The injury itself has affected NRL stars Josh Mansour, Greg Inglis and more recently Clint Gutherson this season.
"It wasn't painful for me, it's an initial shock because you feel something go," Hutchison said.
“I was on the ground for about a minute and I realised it wasn't that bad to get up and walk off.
"We all saw Greg Inglis play on, so it sort of just depends.
“I got tackled over the top of my knee where as you see people do it with no one around them."
St George Illawarra have lost their past two games in inexcusable fashion and now find themselves outside the Telstra Premiership top eight.
The return of Hutchison into first grade is expected to take longer than expected, with the pivot set to return via the Intrust Super Premiership for Illawarra on Saturday.
"Every game you play you want it to be in the top grade and for me it's no different coming back from injury or 20 games into a season, you always want to push for a top spot," Hutchison said.
"I've always thought to myself I could [play in the NRL] as the body gets older because it gets used to it.
“I thought physically I was up to it until the injury.
"But I don't want to make too much of a big deal about a comeback game either because we've still got a job to do in getting Illawarra into the top eight."
Hutchison has an added motivation to finish the year strongly.
The addition of Broncos halfback Ben Hunt next season has thrown his future in limbo.
Despite an extension offer on the table, he wants to get back on the paddock before an official decision is made.
"There's plenty of people I've been able to talk to who have had setbacks in their careers but the main motivation for me was knowing I was off contract at the end of the year and prove that I'm still worthy of being in the NRL system," he said.
"Being here since a young kid it's a place I'd like to stay but it was always more important to get back on the paddock first and let the rest sort itself out."
Hutchison admitted the signing of Hunt was another setback to a rough 12 months but was also keen to learn from the playmaker if he stayed at the Dragons.
"In a way you can understand where the club was coming from," he said.
"Over the last couple of years there hasn't been that half to consistently build a side around but it's shattered me in a way too because I was hoping I could be that player.
“It's not to be and I need to find a role in the team a different way.
"You're not going to go to another club and walk straight into a starting halves spot.
“No matter where I go I'll have to work my way in again and train hard to do so."
Hutchison will be joined by fellow Group 7 products Nathan Ford (Gerringong), Jai Field (Albion Park-Oak Flats), Matt Clune (Shellharbour City), Adam Clune (Shellharbour City), Matthew Jurd (Shellharbour City) and Jesse Dee (Shellharbour City) in the Illawarra side this Saturday.
Illawarra team for NSW Cup round 23 clash against North Sydney Bears:
1. Jai Field
2. Kalifa Faifai Loa
3. Patrick Herbert
23. Izaac Thompson
5. Jordan Pereira
6. Drew Hutchison
7. Adam Clune
8. Josh Kerr
19. Sam Clune
10. Rhys Kennedy
11. Jesse Dee
12. Jacob Hind
13. Will Matthews
14. Jack Payne
15. Nathan Ford
18. Matthew Jurd
21. John Tohi