Injured Waratahs centre Izaia Perese hasn't given up hope of a start on the Wallabies spring tour and says his best rugby is still very much in front of him after a standout 2021 in what was a dire season for NSW.
Perese was in line for a first Test cap against France in July, only to see his dreams of a Wallabies jersey bulldozed in a tackle against the Chiefs in the final round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. A dislocated shoulder cruelled any chance of a start against the French or through the Rugby Championship, despite Dave Rennie still naming Perese in his 42-man squad to face the French.
"Dave and Scott Wisemantel called me, they named me in the team but I think they did that more as a reward and just to let me know that they definitely considered me, which is a nice thing to do," Perese told ESPN.
"So they called me up and wished me all the best, but there was nothing more than that. I understand that they've got a busy year ahead and so there was definitely no way I would be annoying them with anything. So I'm just watching from afar and supporting the boys, and wishing nothing but the best for them."
Perese is already well advanced in his rehab, having recently returned to some on-field running after a tiresome spell on the watt bike and in the gym doing little else but leg weights.
It has also given him time to reflect on the Waratahs' 0-13 season, when he was regularly one of the team's few consistent performers as they battled a tough run with injury across what was already a vastly inexperienced squad.
"I look back at [the season] very disappointed, not individually, but as a team," he said. "I just think that we could have shown more pride in the jersey, to be honest. But I am proud of the boys as well because of how we handled ourselves; when we weren't winning, none of us boys pointed the finger, we stayed strong. And we just understood that great teams are built off years like this, so we've just got to stay with it and keep learning.
"We're a really young squad, all three of our 10s are 22 and under. We've got some experience in our outside backs in Alex Newsome, but we have an open fullback spot, so we've got a lot of young and inexperienced players.
"But we've just got to take a bit of time to click and I just feel that this is coming with a new head coach and the restructure along with that, it's going to be very interesting and exciting to see how things unfold here. At the end of the day our players can only give their best, that's a big one to remember."
That new coach is Darren Coleman, who officially joined up with the team last week. Coleman brings a wealth of experience and an innate knowledge of the NSW rugby ecosystem, but is also a proven winner with Shute Shield titles at both Warringah and Gordon as well as his recent Major League Rugby triumph at the helm of LA Giltinis.
It's only early days, but Perese likes what he sees in his new coach.
"He's been getting to know the players on a personal level," he told ESPN. "He's been locking in hour-slots and just getting to know players on a personal level, a footy-based level and the just an all-round level; what your background is, all that jazz.
"He's also been in and around training, but hasn't been vocal, just observing and seeing how everyone is and stuff like that. But I think he's got a lot to bring.
"For now, he's just trying to get to know the boys and I think he's been under the pump restructuring things with the other coaches. But I'm really excited for what he has to bring and the whole restructuring of what the Waratahs 2022 is going to do."
If anyone was prepared for the Waratahs' trials of 2021, it was Perese. Having departed the Reds for the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL, from which he was later released following an off-field indiscretion, Perese was forced to revive his career with Bayonne.
He then suffered a knee injury, meaning he saw only limited game time in France.
While he didn't intentionally try to be a leader as the Waratahs slumped from loss to loss in 2021, Perese says he was there to support his younger teammates as they experienced just how low things can get in professional sport.
"I have been to different teams, different environments and different cultures and I have learned a lot," Perese explained. "But I think the biggest one for me is the tough times that I have been through, the experiences that I've been through with that, I think that's what's really shaped me as a person and a player to where I am now.
"And having players now that are younger than me; I'm not where I used to be which was always the youngest everywhere and this talent and what not, there are obviously younger boys coming up [at the Waratahs] and they're experiencing what I experienced when I was their age.
"So I can relate to those boys, and it's about how I articulate and connect with those boys on a deeper level, that's something that I'm still trying to work out. If you want to call it leadership, I'd probably just call it mateship. I'm not trying to be a leader, I'm just trying to be a mate and a really good one."
On the field, Perese has isolated a clear work-on for the preseason and into 2022.
"I think my maturity in defence and just holding that line," he told ESPN. "There have been some great times when I've been able to hold my line and been patient to trust my inside men, but also there have been some times when I have not trusted my inside men and I have [been sucked in] and the pass has gotten away. So I think it's just maturity in that sort of area.
"Defensively as a whole, I know I've got great contact, I know I've got great aggression and physicality, but it's just maturing in my decision-making is what I'm really striving to really perfect in this block of preseason and leading into next year. I think that's a huge work-on for me, and everything else is just keep working to get better."
Perese will be a keen spectator when the Wallabies resume their Test season against the All Blacks on Sunday. In a twist of fate, Samu Kerevi will start at No. 12 and is probably the beneficiary of Perese's injury from earlier in the year.
Whether Kerevi is taken to Europe on the spring tour remains to be seen, but it is also likely that Rennie will take a larger than usual squad to the northern hemisphere to cater for injuries and the added roadblock quarantine.
That could open up a situation for Perese to rejoin the Wallabies for the first time in five years after he was first included by Michael Cheika in 2016.
"This year's a bit of funny one as we've [the Waratahs] got a three-week block now, then we'll have a week off and then we'll start preseason," Perese said. "So we're starting preseason pretty early and I'll be right for contact in about seven weeks so it's not that far away.
"But who knows, a couple of injuries within the Wallabies and I might even get the call up. I'm not banking on that, I'm just committed to having a good preseason and ripping in at the Waratahs."
No matter how the rest of the year plays out, Perese has put the injury completely behind him and he is intent on seeing the better days on the horizon - both individually and for the Waratahs.
"I think with everything that I've been through, I really live by [the motto] that everything happens for a reason," he told ESPN. "So it  didn't get me down too much, I was quite happy with how I played in that jersey because I knew I did everything I could for the boys, even though it wasn't my best.
"My best is yet to come, and I know it."