Blockbusting Raiders fullback Josh Dugan says he’s shaken off the injury woes that marred his 2011 season and is looking forward to a possible return to the NRL All Stars side for the traditional season opener in February.
Dugan was man of the match in the NRL All Stars’ 28-12 victory over the Indigenous All Stars this year, his fearless running from the back carving out a game-high 172 metres, three line-breaks and 13 damaging tackle-breaks.
His electrifying early season form saw him handed the No.1 jersey for the New South Wales Blues for the first State of Origin game – before injury cruelly intervened and restricted him to just half of the NRL season.
But off-season surgery on his troublesome ankle injury now has the 21-year-old flyer fully fit and eyeing off a career-best season – starting with his hopeful return to the All Stars arena at Skilled Park on February 4.
“It was a big blow – I actually injured myself the day the second Origin [team] was picked,” Dugan recalled. “It was pretty disappointing but I had to just do everything I could to get back on the field, and I tried to… but it just didn’t work out the way I’d planned.
“I think it was just a freak thing. My leg just got caught under me [in a tackle] and I kind of bounced out the wrong way and just felt it pop. I had to do everything rehab-wise and I’m still managing it now.
“But I had surgery in the off-season, got a couple of bits of bone fragment taken out, and it’s feeling good… I’m 100 per cent fit at the moment and looking forward to getting through the pre-season.”
Dugan said it would be a huge vote of confidence from the fans if they gave him a second chance to play for the NRL All Stars.
“It’s awesome – it’s a good feeling that the fans have voted you as the fullback and just as a player to play in the NRL All Stars,” he told NR.com. “It’s a great accomplishment and also a good week to be involved in.
“[This year] I got the chance to play with Darren Lockyer and Benji Marshall. I’m hoping I can get the vote again and hopefully have another crack.”
Dugan said although Lockyer’s talent and guidance would be missed next year he was sure the squad would rally behind new captain Benji Marshall.
“I think losing Lockyer is going to be a big blow but it’s the All Stars, the best players in the game… I think Benji will make a great captain,” he said. “He’s a great player and he leads on the field and off the field.”
Dugan said that while the Indigenous side drew motivation from representing their people and culture, the All Stars would get their motivation by feeding off their opponents’ passion.
“I think it’s the same as any game – you always want to win every game and you know how passionate the Indigenous side is, so you’ve got to try to better them. And that’s the way we go into it.”
Dugan will face stiff competition for the NRL All Stars’ No.1 jersey, with Manly’s Brett Stewart certain to poll well, along with Newcastle’s Darius Boyd, the Warriors’ Kevin Locke, Roosters’ Anthony Minichiello and possibly Parramatta’s Jarryd Hayne.
Dugan said his taste of top-shelf representative football had helped his skills development and also his focus when he returned to club level.
“I don’t think you notice it until you come back to training with your team,” he said. “And I noticed it last year – you bring a lot of confidence back and just the little things you pick up in camps, from different coaches and different players who have been there and done that.
“It helps you a lot, and it helps for you to bring it back to the club.”
He confirmed a return to Origin was a priority for him in 2012.
“Yeah, definitely – I was unlucky with the injury and I’d like to think I would have played all three [Origins] if I didn’t get injured,” Dugan said. “I’ve just got to get back to playing good footy and getting my name back in the mix.
“I think for me personally I’ve just got to get back to playing my best footy and hopefully we have Campo back starting with us, which will help a lot… I think we missed him a lot last year and just his leadership on the field and getting us to certain places [on the field], and the opportunities he creates when he runs.
“He was unlucky and only played eight minutes I think last year… and I don’t know how he did it – I missed probably 10 games last year and I struggled, so it’s something I don’t really want to have to go through!”
Dugan revealed the Raiders had intensified their pre-season training in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s dismal 15th-place NRL finish.
“Yeah, we’ve gone a bit tougher this year and the boys have handled it pretty well… it’s all showing that we’re working pretty hard,” he said.
“So far this pre-season has been the toughest most of the boys have been involved in so the attitude’s there at the moment and having Campo back is going to be a big boost to the confidence, so hopefully we can step out in Round 1 and show what we’ve got.”
• Fans have until December 23 to be a selector in the first stage of voting at www.nrl.com/allstars