Suffering a broken neck twice threatened to end Pat McCabe's career, but ACT Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham believes the hard-running centre will come back a much more dangerous player after scans cleared him to return to contact training in the new year.
Larkham was ''very, very happy'' with the news that McCabe can start contact training when the Brumbies return from their Christmas break on January 6.
If all goes well, he will be available for the Brumbies' pre-season trial games and then the Super Rugby season opener at Canberra Stadium against the Queensland Reds on February 22.
Larkham said the medical staff would continue to monitor McCabe. ''Patty's scan came back positively, I don't have the exact details, but it's positive news,'' he said.
''We start his contact work from January with an eye on potentially playing that first game.
''I guess it's going to be an ongoing thing, but we've got clearance from the doctor to start contact.
''We need to monitor it as it goes and make assessments further down the track.
''I'd say it's something we're always going to be conscious of.''
McCabe first broke his neck on the Wallabies' European spring tour last year and re-injured it against the British and Irish Lions in June.
Unable to do contact work until last week's scan cleared him, McCabe has focused on his speed and skills over the pre-season.
Larkham said the 25-year-old was just as quick as he had been when he first arrived at the Brumbies five years ago.
He has also added a new string to his bow. Renowned for his powerful straight running, McCabe has been adopting more of a playmaker's role.
He's been filling in at No.10 on occasions while both flyhalf Matt Toomua and inside centre Christian Lealiifano were in Europe with the Wallabies.
It has made him a more complete player - still with the ability to bash and crash, but he'll also look to use his refined skills.
''What I've seen this pre-season is Patty back to his best form ever,'' Larkham said.
''He's been very evasive in training, he's been agile, he's been very skilful. We've thrown him in at 10 number of times through the pre-season and he's handled that very well.
''I think he's added an element to his game that means he doesn't necessarily have to truck the ball up every single time.''
With Lealiifano (ankle) out of contention until the end of March, Larkham plans for McCabe to fill the No.12 jersey.
He said Toomua, South African playmaker Lionel Cronje and the possible addition of a Japanese inside back to the squad would be in the mix with McCabe to fill the two playmaking roles.
Competition for spots in an already blossoming Brumbies backline will become even tougher.
''[McCabe has] played a number of games for the Brumbies and the Wallabies at No.12 so we definitely see him as a No.12,'' Larkham said.
''He's very versatile, capable of playing a number of positions in the backline, but he's training all pre-season at inside centre and … that's the position we see him in at the moment.''
Larkham said they were still awaiting the results of scans on Ita Vaea's heart. The backrower hasn't played since a blood clot was found in his calf earlier this year.