RICHMOND midfielder Reece Conca is confident he'll be fit to play in round one after hamstring and ankle surgery at the end of the Tigers' season.
The 21-year-old tore his left hamstring tendon 12 minutes into the Tigers' elimination final loss to Carlton in September.
He had an operation to repair the tendon, which wasn't off the bone but was partially torn, after dramatically breaking down on the wing early in the final.
Then, a week later, he went back into the hospital to have an extra bone fragment shaved off his right heel; a procedure he had on his left foot a few years ago because of a genetic abnormality that causes a condition called os trigonum syndrome.
While he's not in full training yet and doesn't expect to be until the second week of the Tigers' post-Christmas program, he believes he'll play at least one – possibly two – NAB Challenge games before the premiership season starts.
"I'm pretty confident with where I am at the moment but I've still got a fair way to go," Conca told AFL.com.au this week.
"I'm probably on target. It's just more of a temperamental thing, the hamstring.
"Some days it can be feeling really good and some days, not so good.
"It's probably going a little bit slower than I anticipated but it's still December so there's no real rush."
Conca admits his experience with soft tissue injuries is limited, having mainly battled foot stress fractures throughout his career.
The hamstring tendon injury is similar to one reigning best and fairest winner Daniel Jackson experienced earlier in his career, and the two players had the same surgeon perform the repair.
Conca acknowledges his hamstring strength has never been high but believes in the positives of the injury, given it has handed him a new project going into his fourth season.
"One thing we can gain from this is that it's one focus that I've got with my body and I can build on that now," he said.
"I can focus more on my leg strength and I'm a bit more aware of it.
"It obviously didn't come at the best time but I've had the off-season to recover and it's not all doom and gloom."
Conca will return home to Perth for Christmas before the Tigers come back to training on January 6.
He'll ease into the program and then ramp things up ahead of the NAB Challenge, which the Tigers start on February 14 against Melbourne.
Their second game is against Collingwood on February 22 before their home-and-away season starts on March 15 against Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium.
Conca admitted his most recent layoff had been frustrating but was optimistic his pre-season would accelerate in the New Year.
"I'm a pretty eager person so I thought I'd just be bounding back into training but it's a little bit of a slower process than that," he said.
"It's more with the strength side of the hamstring. My fitness and everything else is going really good.
"I'm still on target and I'll be back full training post-Christmas so I'm only four to six weeks away, which is encouraging because that's when it all starts to crank up."