Ken Owens looks set to make a Wales return on Saturday after an 11-month injury battle that severely tested his mental and physical strength.
The 35-year-old Scarlets hooker has not represented his country since a Six Nations Grand Slam clash against France early last year.
A nerve issue in his back, which he suffered during Wales training two days before facing 2021 Autumn Nations Series opponents New Zealand, put an outstanding career on hold.
And Owens admits there were “a couple of times” when he doubted he would return to the top level that has delivered 87 Wales caps and five British and Irish Lions Test appearances.
“The last 11 months have been tough, mentally and physically,” Owens said, ahead of the All Blacks’ latest Cardiff visit.
“It has been tough in a number of different ways, not being sure whether I was going to recover or not, but it has been a bit of a refresh as well.
“I decided early on that I would give myself every opportunity to return, because I knew even for life after rugby I would need to do the rehab.
“I threw everything into that and whatever happened, happened. Thankfully, I have got the opportunity to be back among the boys in the Welsh squad.”
Asked if any doubts surfaced during the recovery process, he added: “Yes, a couple of times, but I wanted to see what happened.
“The medical advice from the surgeon was that the nerve could take a bit of time. There were certain times where I thought ‘do we keep going through it’? but thankfully I tried to stay as positive as I could be and got through it.”
Owens made his Wales debut during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and he called upon that experience during a recovery process which culminated in a national squad recall following three Scarlets comeback games.
💪 Doing the heavy lifting
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) November 1, 2022
“You know what you need to do to get yourself up to speed,” he said.
“You are not shocked by the intensity of Test rugby, because that’s one thing experience gives you – you know what is coming.
“I think the biggest thing was probably if I had made the decision (to retire) would I regret it in years to come if I had gone too soon?
“If I had come back, I would have known if I was able to compete at this level or not. I think it was making sure I had done everything in my power to come back.
“You probably don’t appreciate things as much until it’s taken away from you. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
“This is the first step, getting back in the squad. Hopefully, things go well and I prove myself and that I am still good enough to pull on the three feathers.”
Wales have not beaten New Zealand since 1953, losing 32 successive Tests against the All Blacks, with 24 of those losses being by 15 points or more.
And while Wales return to action following a first victory over the Springboks on South African soil four months ago, the odds are still stacked against them.
They have also had a number of injury issues to deal with, although assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys delivered a positive update ahead of training on Tuesday.
“There is no-one giving us massive concern,” Humphreys said. “They are getting there. You can only test that when we go pretty physical.”
New Zealand will be without injured captain Sam Cane and suspended lock Brodie Retallick, but Owens added: “They are an outstanding team, and they have been for as long as I can remember.
“One thing they won’t be on the weekend is predictable. They will be looking to play with tempo and shift the point of contact.”