I feel as though I belong.

When you have been on the outside looking in, then ‘belonging’ comes with a variety of emotions, but for me, the most significant emotion I feel right now is gratitude.

This year at Manly has been a dream come true. It’s the realisation of everything I hoped for when I was wide-eyed youngster and then when I was going through that really tough transitional period between showing potential as a junior and realising that potential as a senior player.

And, like the road faced by almost every player, there were a few potholes in mine.

I played my junior footy at Gerringong, south of Wollongong, and therefore was part of the St George Illawarra Dragons system. That’s where I played SG Ball, Under 20s and then made it through to the First Grade squad.

But that’s where things stalled. I spent all of the 2018 season in that top squad, but didn’t get a run in the NRL. I was on the outside looking in. I was pretty bitter about that … not getting a shot.

I thought I was training the house down. I was fitter than ever. Also, up until then, right through that Dragons system, I was always making the next level ahead of time, so it came as a bit of a shock when I wasn’t given a crack.

But if you look hard enough, out of every negative there is a positive and that certainly was the case in 2018 where I spent the season playing in the NSW Cup with the Illawarra Cutters. I may have been a bit filthy about not making the top grade, but I was learning a lot – about football and life.

Playing Cup was the first time I had really played against men. It’s a big step up from juniors.

You’re not a kid any more. You’re not treated like one and you’re not expected to play like one. The shift up was massive.

You quickly had to get used to the contact, playing with injuries and just the week-in, week-out grind that you can only understand by living it. You learn quickly what real football is all about.

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Tossing the pig skin around

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That’s also where I found a new respect for those around me – at all levels. I was on a contract, which meant I was being paid as a professional footballer. But I was playing alongside others who were not.

There were guys who would barely make it to training on time because they had been concreting all day. They would change from their work clothes into their training gear then race straight out into some fitness drills … after being on the end of a shovel all day!

I have had a glimpse of what these blokes had to endure. I’ve been a concrete labourer, trialling via an apprenticeship. I know what a hard day’s work is all about and it’s not a lot of fun.

That year in the NSW Cup made me realise what an opportunity you are given when the door is opened to a professional contract. In fact it made me train harder to achieve my football goals and to also never feel sorry for yourself if things aren’t going exactly to plan.

So when the opportunity came along to join Manly, I grabbed it with both hands. As soon as I joined the club I felt different. My pre-season was unbelievable.

The comparison with how I felt at the Sea Eagles compared with the Dragons can be summed up in one game – a pre-season game. At St George we had a trial against English team Hull.

For some reason I was a pack of nerves before the game and that carried onto the field and I had a shocker. Fast forward 12 months and during the trials with Manly I felt completely different. I was super confident, knew what I had to do and I did it.

That’s where the ‘belonging’ really made a difference. I felt at home within the playing and coaching groups. I would look around and felt that everyone respected me and I was confident in myself and that made me feel like I was ready … ready for that next step.

The call-up came for that first game this season, and as I said, it has been a dream come true. Game after game my confidence has grown. I now see and understand the difference between the NSW Cup and the NRL.

In the last couple of weeks I have found how hard it is to constantly be ready and lift for every game, as you can never be complacent in your preparation or recovery – you have to do everything perfect, all the time.

Having the support of the coaching staff and the players around me has also boosted my confidence.

Like most outside backs, I love to take the opposition on. For me, that’s why I play the game, to back yourself and come out on top. But I also know that you never stop learning and there are parts of my game I will continue to work on.

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In the top grade defence is a whole new ball game. It is so detailed and everyone must play their part. If there is just one little chink in a defensive pattern then the downside can be massive. That’s why I will be working extra hard to ensure that I won’t be that weak link.

The more you play at the top level the more you don’t want to go back. I feel like I belong and will do what it takes to stay where I belong.

I have been on the outside … and I don’t like the view.