IT HAS been 10 months since banned playmaker Robert Lui played a minute of rugby league, yet North Queensland Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston is adamant he will be major part of any success this season.
Lui is vying for the Cowboys' halfback position against incumbent Michael Morgan and Ray Thompson.
Lui has been among the team's most impressive trainers this pre-season and despite his time away from the game, new Cowboys sprint coach Paul Di Bella rates him one of the best athletes in the squad.
Lui only played one NRL game last season, the Cowboys' disastrous opening round loss to the Gold Coast Titans on March 9.
On March 21 he pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend and mother of his son Taleah Rae Backo and received a two-year good behaviour bond.
Two weeks later the NRL banned him from competing in any rugby league competition for 2012, which left he and the club devastated.
The Cowboys considered legal action later in the year as the NRL refused to budge from its harsh sentence, and counsellors for Lui said his rehabilitation would be best served with regular football even at a lower grade level.
Now he is finally set to play league again when the Cowboys face the Broncos on February 9 in a trial at Mt Isa.
Thurston said Lui would be a major part of their team this season and was a real contender for the halfback position in round one.
"He'll feature in the 17 throughout the year. If that's round one ... well that's for the coaches to decide,'' Thurston said.
"We are really glad to have him up here. No doubt the coaching staff will have a tough time picking that side.
"He's been training well. Doing everything right on and off the field.
"He came back from the Chrissy break in really good nick.''
The Cowboys have an imposing squad for this season, with depth across most positions.
Thurston said Lui was not an option for the hooking role vacated by the retired Aaron Payne and Penrith Panthers recruit James Segeyaro.
"He's more of a halfback. He will be in that role,'' Thurston said.
"He's vying with Michael Morgan and Ray but Ray can play hooker as well.
"There are a lot of spots the boys are vying for. They are challenging each other for spots everyday.
"We have a lot of depth in a number of positions. It will be tough for the coach to pick the first team.''
Cowboys coach Neil Henry has also said Lui was a prime candidate for halfback.
"Morgo finished off the year really well so he's in the box seat (for the halfback spot). It's up to Robert and Ray to get in there and push for selection," Henry said