He was named the Rugby League Players Association under-20s Player of the Year for 2016, and Roosters youngster Nat Butcher says he is now ready to take the next step in his footballing career as he seeks to lock down a spot in the first grade squad.
The 19-year-old dominated all the key stats in the Holden Cup last year, finishing the 2016 season with a competition-high 4,526 metres and 1,049 tackles to go with 44 offloads and 97 tackle breaks.
Butcher was unsurprisingly named lock forward in the NYC Team of the Year and featured for the Junior Blues in their emphatic State of Origin victory at ANZ Stadium, before being promoted to the NRL side for his first grade debut on the hallowed turf of Suncorp Stadium against the Broncos in Round 26.
But after helping the Roosters to a thrilling come-from-behind win in the Holden Cup grand final last season, Butcher was forced to go under the knife to repair a damaged shoulder.
As a result, he has spent his second pre-season with the first grade squad in the rehab group, but is hoping to return in time for the Roosters' trial game against the Sea Eagles on the Central Coast for the Community Cup on February 18.
The news isn't so good for teammate Sio Siua Taukeiaho, with the lock forward set to miss the start of the Telstra Premiership season after tearing his ACL in Round 25, but he's hopeful of a return in the Round 5 home game against the Sea Eagles.
The pair were at Central Coast Stadium on Wednesday afternoon to promote the pre-season contest, where Butcher acknowledged a marked improvement in his on-field presence at training.
"I'm [playing] with a bit more maturity at training. I'm taking ownership and understanding my role a bit better," Butcher said.
"Siua has helped me out a lot, so has Kane [Evans] and Ice [Isaac Liu] in getting to know my role, and that's something I developed throughout last season.
"Getting back on the field and training more with the boys, I'm putting my hand up and getting more involved.
"It's been a bit different for us, both being in the rehab squad. We're slowly getting back and getting back with the team. I know for myself that I've just been getting back into the team and not doing contact, but I'm slowly getting back into it.
"I'd love to play in this Community Cup. I'll be pushing to try to get back for the trial before Round 1.
"I'd love to play more NRL this year, so that's the goal. Hopefully I can play a bit more consistently in the NRL team."
Butcher added that he'd love to earn a bench spot for his side's Round 1 game against the Gold Coast Titans, and Taukeiaho's injury has opened the door for that dream to become reality.
For Taukeiaho, the focus is on getting his knee right as he prepares for what could be a very long year ahead with a World Cup looming in late October.
"Everything is coming along alright," he said.
"I just started running two days ago, so I'm pretty much on track at the moment. Hopefully I'll start training with the team towards the end of Feb, and then hopefully just go from there."
This article first appeared on NRL.COM