'You have to have a sense of humility that you don't own that jersey'.
With that mantra driving him in his return from a shoulder injury, Dolphins forward Tom Gilbert embarks on a pre-season he hopes can take him back to the heights he reached before his 2023 campaign was cruelly cut short.
Gilbert had played a leading role in the Dolphins' rollicking start to their debut season and been rewarded with a Maroons jersey for the Origin opener in Adelaide, but the City of Churches became a city of broken dreams when he dislocated his shoulder attempting to tackle Blues winger Brian To'o.
His second appearance for Queensland had lasted just 18 minutes and he watched on in agony as Billy Slater's men produced a gutsy comeback to salute 26-18 triumph before going on to claim the series 2-1.
Having had his shoulder surgically repaired, 23-year-old Gilbert is champing at the bit to pick up where he left off in the Dolphins' first 11 games, where he averaged 118 running metres and 37 tackles per match.
"We know the standard we have created, we know the level we can get to and where we want to get to, so I’m really excited for that," Gilbert said.
Gilbert confident in 2024 return
"It was hard for me to watch as the boys struggled at the back end of the year, it added salt on wound, but the effort they put in sheds light on the optimism we have for 2024.
"I'm back with the team now, I have started my contact progression, and I'm really confident in how this rehab has gone.
"I'm feeling strong but I know I have to re-earn my jersey and be able to add something to the team.
"If I want to get that No.13 or any jersey, I know I have to earn it."
Not only will the Dolphins enter their second season with the powerhouse Gilbert back on deck but they also welcome Tom Flegler and Herbie Farnworth from the Broncos along with former Bulldogs flyer Jake Averillo.
The addition of newly minted Kangaroo Flegler to a pack that already boasts Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi, Jarrod Wallace, Connelly Lemuelu and Gilbert, gives coach Wayne Bennett the firepower he needs to match the heavyweights.
Also in the mix are enforcer Ray Stone and organiser Jeremy Marshall-King, who played just 17 and 15 games respectively in 2023 due to injury.
"I love the way Tommy [Flegler] plays and hopefully he can make me a better player," Gilbert said.
Flegler eyeing leadership role in Dolphins move
"He is coming into the form of his career having just made his Test debut so it is such good timing for us.
"Hopefully we can get a combination sorted when he comes in January and then talk about what sort of 1-2 punch we can be.
"And we get Jeremy and Ray back as well after injuries. You need someone like Ray Stone in every team you play in - he is so selfless. And Jeremy makes every forward in our team better.
"We're in a really good spot compared to last year but our reality today is we need to get better and keep working hard.
"We need to look how we can be better today and do that for the next three months and then we can start talking about the kind of team we want to be."