Sam Warburton fears he may not he ready to play for Wales at the start of the 2018 Six Nations even if he returns before it starts in February.
He has not played since July when he led the British and Irish Lions to a drawn series against New Zealand, and had neck surgery in September.
The 29-year-old says he does not yet have a return-to-play date.
“I think if I did manage to play in the Six Nations next year then I’d see that as a big bonus,” said Warburton.
The Cardiff Blues flanker’s 2016-17 domestic season was ended on 7 April by a knee injury suffered against Ulster.
Warburton went on to play six matches – two off the bench – for the Lions in New Zealand.
He says he would “love to” play for Wales again as early as possible, but wants to ensure he is fully prepared for that level before doing so.
“I’m not going to get my hopes up for that [the Six Nations], purely because I wouldn’t have played since July and like the Lions tour showed, it took me a good four games to get up to speed there,” he added.
“So I presume I need a good month of rugby at the Blues before I can think about playing international again.”
Time out for Warburton?
His has captained Wales a record 48 times and skippered two Lions tours in in 2013 and 2017, but his career has been peppered by long injury lay-offs.
He told BBC Sport Wales he has not thought beyond his current dual Blues-Welsh Rugby Union contract, which expires in 2020.
“I guess I’ll see where my body’s at. I’ll be 31, which suddenly sounds, from a rugby player’s perspective, definitely a veteran at 31, I think,” he said.
Warburton also noted the coaching changes that will take place after the 2019 World Cup in Japan that will see Warren Gatland and assistant Rob Howley leave.
“There’s going to be a big change in the Welsh set-up so you might not even be in favour after that World Cup,” he said.
“They might want to plan ahead, so it all depends. If you’re still playing international rugby in 2020, then yeah, you’ve got to give it a really good go so you’ll have to see if you’re still around in the international scene, I guess.”
The benefits of injuries
However, Warburton says there is a benefit to having had numerous lay-offs during his career.
“I guess I’ve got quite a young playing age in the sense that there are some guys who might not have picked up an injury at all in their career in the first six, seven or eight years. They’ve played eight hard years of rugby where when you do pick up injury, sometimes it can prolong your career,” he said.
“I say that to young guys in particular, who might get a bit disheartened by injury.
“If you have a long-term injury which keeps you out for nine months, it probably just prolongs your career by nine months because it’s nine months you’re not taking bumps, assuming that injury doesn’t recur, of course.
“Sometimes it can work in your favour.”