I’ve lost count how many times I’ve pinched myself.

Twelve months ago, if some one had told me that this would all happen the way it has, I wouldn’t have believed it.

This time last year, so much was going against me. Injuries, form, opportunities… nothing was working in my favour and at times, I struggled to believe that I would get my chance in the big league.

The only glimmer of hope I had, was a guaranteed NRL pre-season promised to me from Cronulla, where I knew I would have thirteen weeks of training over the summer to prove myself to the club’s hierarchy.

It was a big step for me and the body got a shock after the first training session – I knew I was in trouble here because all we did was stretch and pool recovery!

I knew pretty quick that the standard of what the NRL boys expected at our first day was pretty straight forward, the player leadership group said ‘If you want to be a professional then this is what it takes’.

The older boys like Wade Graham, Chad Townsend, Paul Gallen and Josh Dugan could not have been more welcoming – they each took me under their wing and made every effort to help me throughout the pre-season.

Away from the club, the Sharks’ welfare department had arranged part-time work with local trade businesses to help me earn an income while I was trialling over the summer.

It was an absolute nightmare – I have the utmost respect and new appreciation for ‘tradies’, but I never want to pick up a shovel or labour cement ever again.

I have no idea how they do it. Seriously. Long hours, heavy lifting and something always goes wrong. I remember while shovelling dirt one morning, I could have broken down in tears. I just did not want to be there. It wasn’t what I wanted my future to look like.

What it did do though was open my eyes to realise the opportunity I had before me in rugby league, and just how badly I actually wanted it.

So you could imagine how low I felt when, after the thirteen weeks finished, the club’s recruitment manager pulled me aside.

“Sorry mate, we’ve got nothing for you. We can’t sort anything out at the moment with our current salary cap situation”.

That really knocked me back. I remember just sitting behind the steering wheel of my parked car, feeling as though my heart had been ripped out of my chest.

I did all I could to give myself a chance to make the team and it still wasn’t good enough, because much of it was simply outside of my control.

I felt like I worked so hard for it and I’d come up short. Mum kept it in perspective that things happen for a reason and that we’d sort something out, so in that case when I got offered nothing I was obviously on the look for something different.

My management started looking around for different options but then ‘Bomber’ became the new coach and things started to change.

I had a chat with ‘Bomber’ and I just told him what’s going on, I was pretty open with him and said ‘Look if you can’t offer me anything, I’d like to go somewhere else to obviously get my shot’.

‘We’ll keep you on a CBA’, he said, which is like a little side contract where I’m not a Top 30 player or a development player, so I didn’t sit in any of those categories.

I was basically just training just for the experience around the big boys, without the pathway of actually playing any games for Cronulla.

Then the offers started to get a bit more serious as the season kicked off and I went alright in the first few rounds. I had clubs offer something big and opportunities as well, so I went back to the club and said ‘Look, there’s places elsewhere that are offering the opportunity to go play’.

It was important to me that my management was communicating openly and honestly with the club, as they had given me an opportunity to even realise a potential NRL dream.

The club came back and they said to me ‘With the salary cap situation right now we can’t afford a top player in the outside backs’.

The Sharks though did offer me something – ‘We’d like to offer you a Top 30 spot’.

It was the first real step towards me making it to the NRL. I jumped at it.

We were in talks with this for a while now and it was kind of going back and forth and then literally two weeks ago, I got a call on Monday from ‘Bomber’, my family were here and I was a bit busy and I was a bit taken aback by the call. But it wasn’t till he finally said ‘You’ve been going good in the cup, I want you for the 18th man this week when we travel up to Brisbane’.

I just couldn’t believe it, I was shocked, I hadn’t even signed my contract yet, I was just freaking out in my room, crying, I just couldn’t believe it.

Mum’s there and she is crying as well, like is this all happening.

Once I got off the phone from ‘Bomber’, I got on the phone to the management crew and pleaded with them to sort out my contract ASAP.

It was a crazy week. I didn’t end up signing the Top 30 contract until Friday when we flew up to Brisbane, the day before the game.

It was an honour just to be wearing the club colours finally… never did I actually imagine that I would be making my debut on that same day as a last-minute inclusion to the side.

As expected, I participated in the warm-up and I remember looking across seeing how the boys were looking. All signs were pretty positive. No signs of any last-minute niggles.

I walked back into the changing shed with the rest of the boys. As the lads started to run through their paces, I figured it was best that I hang back and let them all do their pre-game work.

And Shane, our trainer, let me know I could get dressed as I wasn’t required for the ANZAC Day ceremony.

I remember just walking around and even though everyone was sweet, I was like I’ll leave my uniform on just in case.

It was getting closer and then the hooter went off and the lady comes out and she’s like ‘It’s time to line up’, at this point I was content, I had my little enjoyment of it all and I’d experienced what it feels like.

While the boys are still outside getting ready to go.. . I’m heading back to the changing rooms ready to take my warm up top and strapping tape off. And I saw the trainers having a meeting and then I saw Shane Smith looking at me, something didn’t seem right, I was like I’m sure it’s nothing so I started to take my top off and get ready to go back and watch the game.

It still gives me goosebumps just telling it, just reliving it again, but as I’m getting ready to take my top off I get this tap on my shoulder and Shape comes over to drop the absolute bombshell of my life.

‘You’re debuting right now, it’s your time’.

I’m just like ‘What are you talking about?’

Dugan’s out, you’re in,’ Shane said.

I’m sitting there, just shitting myself, going are you serious? I’ve just gone from this high to low to this high, I’m sitting there, I didn’t even have my top on anymore.

I bolted to where my 18th man top was and I just chucked it on straight away and I was like I’ve got to go now.

It was funny as, I walked out to the boys as they’re making their way out and I’ve just chugged back two pre-workouts and an energy gel and I’m just like ‘Let’s go, let’s get it’.

Before I know it, I’m literally standing at the tunnel walking out, it was just that quick.

I just remember all the boys were saying ‘It’s your time, it’s your time’, as we were walking out.

Before you know I’m standing there with the national anthem of New Zealand and Australia being played and singing along, I’m shoulder to shoulder with Morris and Shaun Johnson and I’m just like is this actually real, is this all happening right now?

That’s literally how quick it went, like shit’, I didn’t even have time to soak it all up or process what was going on.

It’s funny when I was doing the ceremony, because it had been announced on TV, all my family were suddenly receiving messages and calls saying ‘He’s debuting’ and my Mum was like ‘No, you’ve got it all wrong. He’s just the 18th man’. They thought the 18th man just runs out.

I had all my family there and my friends and it wasn’t until they actually saw me lineup for the kick off, they told me they just all started crying, the family started crying and Mum just said she was in tears and apparently my older brother was the biggest baby there haha.

I still remember Andrew Fifita’s big smile, he was really good, he just kept this smile on his face and was just like ‘Mate enjoy this, you deserve it, you belong here’, and to have him there and just speaking to me and to see him so calm and cool and just enjoying it that helped me feel a bit relaxed and I was like if he can enjoy it, I can enjoy it.

That kind of kept the smile on my face and I remember before we kicked off he looked over to me and gave me a big grin and I’m just like looking back and smiling, so that was pretty special.

Even after the game it wasn’t the ideal score but Chad was positive and came up to me and was just like ‘Congratulations, you deserve to be here, you worked hard for this and hold your head up high you should be proud of yourself’, to have those words from Chad and that vibe off Andrew and a couple of the other boys was special for me and something that hopefully one day I can turn around to a young bloke and do the same thing too.