HE'D be one of the oldest debutants in NRL history but Dragons half Darren Nicholls says he's never been hungrier to make that elusive first top-grade start.
The 29-year-old spent the bulk of the preseason on the Dragons right edge prior to Ben Hunt's arrival and has reprised that role this week with Hunt away on Origin duty.
Hunt carried some niggling injuries into Queensland camp and, having been named on an extended bench on Tuesday, Nicholls shapes as the likely replacement should Hunt fail to back up against the Bulldogs on Monday.
While he's confident his former Broncos teammate will be right to take the field against the Dogs, Nicholls is ready to jump on the opportunity should it arise.
“Obviously Hunty played Origin the other night and this is the time when you've got to be ready to step up,” Nicholls said.
“In the spine there Gaz [Gareth Widdop] and Cam [McInnes] are both great leaders so it's been pretty easy. Back in ISP I sort of run that ship there but coming up it's pretty seamless.
“You don't have to do as much because everyone knows their spots a lot easier. We both play right side, I've always played right side so that's a bit if an advantage for me as well.
“It's been pretty comfortable but I think Benny's going to be sweet for this weekend. Whatever Mary and the boys need I'll do. If it comes it comes, if it doesn't it's the best thing for the team if Benny's there.”
A long-awaited debut would be a reward for persistence for Nicholls who has had full-time stints with South Sydney, Brisbane and Penrith, leading the Panthers to an ISP double-crown last season.
It's been a long time on the fringes, but Nicholls said the desire has only grown stronger as his career's gone on.
“It probably drives me more,” Nicholls said.
“I've been playing reggies for a while. 10 years ago I definitely wasn't ready but now, each year, I feel I'm getting better and better.
“I'm a massive footy head, I watch footy all the time and it's just a love of the game. If I wasn't playing professionally I'd be playing park footy with my mates anyway.
“There's nothing better than going to work and footy's your work. It's what I always wanted to do as a kid and I'm doing it. I'm getting closer to an NRL game but, each week I get to go out and work's football so it's a dream come true either way.”
Nicholls has taken heart from watching good mate Cody Walker's progression from 26-year-old debutant to NRL regular and believes he can do the same if the opportunity arises.
“I'm mates with Cody, we played together at North Sydney when I was with the Bunnies,” Nicholls said.
“It was great playing with him and he's really kicked on and he's a big part of that Souths team now. It is in my head seeing those guys but I just focus on my own things.
"Each coach give you different things to work on being in different systems and I've learned different things. Being here I've built my game up even more and I just want to take it to the next level.”