JOSH DUGAN –
It has been four weeks in the making to reach Saturday’s Rugby League World Cup final against England, in a match the shapes to be a true test of skill and physicality.
But for me, the journey to wearing the Australian Kangaroos jumper again really started three months ago, when St. George’s finals campaign came to an end following our last club match against Canterbury in round 26.
From being on the verge of booking our ticket into the finals series, to bowing out of the regular season altogether, was disappointing to say the least.
Full credit to the Bulldogs on the day – they were the better team and managed to shape the final eight by keeping us out of the fold.
As the days passed following that game, I reflected on 2017 and the year that was, and hoped desperately that there was still some football left for me with the Australian Kangaroos.
Once I finished up my time at the Dragons, I was heart broken to be honest.
I burst out into tears on the field, and couldn’t keep my emotions in check because I know how much St George have done for me as a club, and how much I am going to miss it.
It hurt a lot having to leave but I am looking forward to writing a new chapter with Cronulla.
The Sharks have put forward a terrific opportunity for me, and I can’t wait to rip in with them during the off-season.
But I wasn’t ready for 2017 to finish in the manner it did.
So when Mal Meninga picked me as part of the Australian Prime Minister’s XIII to take on Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, I wasn’t prepared to take that opportunity for granted.
For me, that was essentially my first trial for the Kangaroos squad; all I wanted to do was put my best foot forward, train and play as hard as I could, so that my name would be in the mix when the Kangaroos’ coaching committee met to finalise World Cup selections.
I admit, throughout the whole process, I myself was sceptical as to whether there was a spot for me in the team; I just thought there were more genuine centres that had better seasons than me, and I was probably hampered by injuries as well as some off-field incidents as well.
So when I returned from Papua New Guinea with the Australian Prime Minister’s XIII, I was probably still unsure of my World Cup chances.
I knew I had done all I could, and waited anxiously for the news.
I remember the feeling of pure relief when I finally received the call from the team manager at the Dragons, who informed me that Mal had confirmed to the club my selection into the Kangaroos squad.
At the time, it didn’t seem real – I was pretty over the moon to be honest.
I feel when I have been picked for the Kangaroos, I haven’t let anyone down – and throughout this year’s tournament I feel I have been able to play my role for the team, thanks in part to the belief instilled in me from my Kangaroos teammates and coaching staff.
I owe a lot to Mal – he really has given me a number of national opportunities since taking over as Kangaroos coach at the start of last year.
Mal is just an outstanding leader of men, and doesn’t try to over coach you. He wholeheartedly believes that if you’re in the team it’s because you’re the best player for that position in Australia.
It’s that level of confidence he gives to his players that makes them stand slightly taller on game day.
And for me, I really needed that reassurance to validate my belonging in the Test squad.
At the start of camp I did an interview with a Sydney-based reporter, and made mention that I wasn’t confident of getting picked in the first place.
Mal was super quick to reach out to me, to let me know that I was the right person and fit for his team.
He has brought a distinctive “personable” difference to our national program, as illustrated by our #RISE mantra, where all our actions reflect the core values of respect, inspire, selfless, excellence.
It’s all about putting the team first.
Mal has brought that want and desire back into the Test football – players all around the NRL want to play for Australia, and fans of our great game have a new appreciation for our national team.
It’s the pinnacle of any sport, to represent your country in your chosen sport – I don’t think there is anything that can really top it.
Every time I sing the national anthem, I’m holding back tears because it does so much to me.
With my past, I never thought I’d play footy again, let alone be out there representing Australia so it is something that is very special to me.
It’s always a terrific opportunity to play alongside our game’s best players.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with the Australian Kangaroos for a few years now – when I first got into camp I was a bit star struck, and pretty quiet.
I’ve always considered myself to be a leader at club level, and now at Origin level with the New South Wales Blues – but when you have guys like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk talking in the rooms, you definitely let them have their say.
You listen intently, because they each have a lot of knowledge to pass down and you want to absorb as much as you can.
Those guys are the ultimate professionals, so there is always an opportunity to learn from them.
The beauty about the Kangaroos though is that everyone is a leader in their own right, and do all the right things in regards to preparation, recovery and game day – so we know we can count on each other at any stage throughout camp.
I’m looking forward to running out in front of a packed house at Suncorp Stadium, as we look to cement our legacy as World Cup champions.
Our goal at the start of our campaign was to be always here for the final – it’s our home turf, so of course we want keep the World Cup here in Australia.
In our opening match against England in Melbourne, it was a genuine test match – a tough game of football that was only determined in the last ten minutes of play.
It was a battle right up until then, and we’re expecting no different this Saturday.
We can’t, and won’t be taking England lightly at all – they would have taken plenty of confidence from their own performance, knowing how hard they competed.
Since then, they have played some great footy, and are well led around the park by lads like James Graham, Sam Burgess and Gareth Widdop.
Anything can happen on the day, so it’s important that we really set our team defence and stick to our game plan.
We’ve only let in three tries all tournament – we’re holding teams to low scores because of our discipline, so we’ll be ensuring that remains one of our key focuses.
It’s just about being in that right frame of mind for 80 minutes – for both teams, I think defence will be the key this Saturday.
It shapes as an epic battle between two of the world’s best teams, and I’m confident fans of our great game will be excited by the build-up.