By Dan Walsh
Another year, and another round of debate over the coveted sky blue No.1 jumper is upon us.
And with a starring role in the Dragons' 20-10 win over the Warriors on Saturday, Josh Dugan has thrown the gauntlet firmly back the way of his competitors Jarryd Hayne and Brett Stewart.
A 68th-minute try that sealed the match, 174 running metres, three tackle breaks, three offloads and a night where he returned everything the Warriors kickers sent his way with more than just a bit of vim and vigour.
Your move, Chuckles.
While Dugan declined to talk to the media about his Origin prospects after the match, incumbent NSW forward Trent Merrin was all too happy to pump up the tyres of his freewheeling fullback.
“He’s playing his way into a Blues jersey,” Merrin told NRL.com. “Doogs is a great player and we love having him out there.
“He brings a lot to the team and he produces some freakish stuff.
“He’s just come off his injury and he’s looking at building off two great performances so we’re happy to see him fit and firing.”
Merrin said the tattooed custodian, whose late four-pointer from a Mitch Rein grubber sank a potential Warriors comeback, was the type of player teammates look to with the match on the line.
“When the heat’s on us he’s definitely a bloke who can puts his hand up and pull something from nothing,” said Merrin.
“Especially us big boys in the middle, we love that he’s got that about him, that freakish ability; it makes it easier on us.”
And should Dugan get another crack at the NSW jumper he has worn three times since his debut in 2011, Merrin was adamant the 23-year-old’s new approach to football would ensure there would be no repeat of the off-field antics that hampered his preparation for Game Two last year, when Dugan fronted up for camp under the weather after a big night with axed star Blake Ferguson.
“I think he’s become a lot more professional and matured a lot more,” said Merrin.
“You can just tell by the way he carries himself on and off the field.
“He’s a credit to himself, the way he’s travelling and the way he’s bounced back from injury.”
So no lingering attitude problems for a guy who controversy has followed like a bad smell from almost day one in the NRL?
“There’s no attitude issue at all. But I think being a 23-year-old, like myself; I think you mature into the NRL.
“It takes a few years to actually mature into the game and he’s definitely come of age.”
With 156 running metres and 33 tackles against the Warriors, Merrin was also quietly pushing his own barrow for representative selection, and the Shellharbour junior admitted next month’s Test against New Zealand was the next goal on his list after playing all three matches for the Blues last year.
“It’s always on the radar, but that’s in the hands of the selectors.
“I can’t really do too much but play consistent good footy. It’s up to them but it’s always a goal of mine to play for Australia.”
As one of the competition’s form back-rowers last season Merrin was in line for a berth in the Kangaroos' victorious World Cup squad until a sickening knee injury cruelled his chances, but he said the missed opportunity now fuels his latest representative ambitions.
“It was a hard injury to cop but it’s something to build off and use it as motivation.
“It’s never good to cop an injury like that but those tough things make people stronger and it’s definitely helped me for this year.
“It tests you a little bit and I think you need to be tested every now and then.”