By Jack Brady (NRL.com)
He was the Dragons' next big thing in the off-season and now just eight games into his NRL career, rookie centre Euan Aitken says the realities of the NRL have hit home as the Red V prepare to face derby rivals the Cronulla Sharks on Sunday afternoon.
The Merimbula-Pambula Bulldogs junior, who has been on the losing side just once in his NRL career so far, said his role in the team is increasing every time he steps out for the Dragons.
A defensive rock out wide, Aitken has been a strong addition to Paul McGregor's team despite starting his career on the left edge, an unfamiliar position to him.
Averaging 17.8 tackles and 148.6 metres per game, the 19-year-old earned his first start on his preferred right edge two weeks ago alongside veteran winger Jason Nightingale.
"Each week you get a bit more [responsibility] put on your shoulders to play well on the field. It gets to the point where you can't be that young kid anymore and you have to step up," Aitken told NRL.com.
"I guess reality has hit me and I'm trying to improve every week and I'm always looking at video and searching for ways to improve. In my first couple of initial games they sort of let you find your feet a bit more.
"[Playing] on the left was a bit of a learning curve, it was a period for me to become a better all-round [player], but now I'm back on my strong side and running the ball which is going to be a lot more helpful for me. It was good to have that stint there though because in future circumstances if I need to move back then I can."
Having been contracted to the club since he was 14, after a Dragons recruitment officer tried to drag him off the field 10 minutes into a major semi-final to sign him, Aitken left the comfort of his family home to travel four-and-a-half hours north to Shellharbour.
Moving in with an older couple who looked after him in his formative years in the Dragons' junior squads, Aitken has since repaid the faith of the eager recruitment officer and the club by holding his own in first grade.
With the likes of Nabuli, Peter Mata'utia and Dylan Farrell coming in and out of the team throughout Aitken's short NRL stint so far, the Junior Kangaroo has cause to take plenty of confidence from the faith showed in him.
Set to face off with inconsistent Sharks centre Blake Ayshford this weekend, Aitken said he still had a lot to improve on.
"I am happy with my form but I'm still transitioning and finding my feet a little bit so I'm not completely satisfied. I still have a lot of improvement to go and I'm definitely not happy to set myself at this pace yet," he said.
"I want to keep improving every week and hopefully become a better of a player as the year goes on because you know you have someone behind you who wants to take your position and vice-versa, so you have to do everything you can to stay."