REW JOHNS, rugby league’s greatest drawcard, will put his playing future on the line tonight when he takes the field for the first time since suffering a career-threatening neck injury.
An otherwise meaningless trial between Newcastle and North Queensland up in Mackay has taken on unprecedented importance as the code sweats on the game’s best player coming through the first real test of his injury unscathed.
“I’m really nervous – probably as nervous as I have ever been leading into a game,” Johns said just prior to a training session in Mackay yesterday afternoon.
“I have done everything I possibly could have to prepare myself so I just have to wait to see how things pan out.
“It is hot and humid up here and, to be honest, I just want to get the game out of the way without any dramas.
“The neck feels good but you just need that assurance that there will be no further problems.
“To get some confidence back – that’s the most important thing.”
The Knights captain has not played since last August, when CAT scans showed that bulging discs in his neck were dangerously close to his spinal cord.
It took six weeks in a neck brace and further Rehabilitation before corrective surgery and a possible end to his career were ruled out.
The injury cost him last season’s finals series and a Kangaroo tour.
Just to ease his concerns before flying to Mackay on Thursday, Johns sought assurances from top Sydney spinal specialist Dr John Yeo, after a series of scans earlier in the week.
“He was happy with everything so that eased things a bit,” Johns said.
“There are times when the neck still gets a bit sore after training but there has been no numbness in my arms which is the most important thing.”
Johns did not want to contemplate a further injury tonight.
“I’m just being positive and not thinking about it at all,” he said.
Knights coach Michael Hagan said it was not only Johns who felt tense.
“Obviously there is a little bit of concern there. I think everyone is feeling a bit on edge for him,” he said.
“Andrew has assured me he will pull himself out of the early exchanges but he is probably just telling me that to settle my nerves.
“It will more than likely take him a few games to really feel confident about his neck again but getting this one out of the way will certainly help.”
Hagan decided against using Johns in the World Sevens or in the club’s first trial against the Sydney Roosters last weekend, hoping to ease some of the hype around his return.
“I have Steve Witt up my sleeve to come on if Andrew needs a spell at any time,” Hagan said. “He may play half a game or three-quarters of a game depending on how he is feeling.”
Mackay Showground holds around 12,000 people and the game is tipped to be a sellout.