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HE returned from two broken ankles last season to help inspire the Panthers’ Toyota Cup outfit to their maiden finals series – now Joel Orton plans to do the same for the NRL side.

A 20-year-old back-rower/prop, the Hunter Valley product kicked off his local first-grade career at just 17 years of age, mixing it with men twice his limited vintage and showing them up in the process.

And after representing the Newcastle Knights in Harold Mathews and SG Ball, and helping the Panthers’ Jersey Flegg team to the 2007 premiership, the NSW Schoolboys representative is ready to deliver on his potential at NRL level.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to train with the fulltime squad and prove I’m worthy of staying on at the club,” says Orton, who’s been likened to star back-rower Nathan Smith.

“I’m giving it everything I’ve got to prove I deserve to stay and I can’t wait to get a crack at NRL.

“I’ve been working towards this since I was 15 playing schoolboys footy in Merriwa, and now I’ve got the opportunity I’m desperate to make it happen.

“Matt Elliott has told me to keep doing what I’m doing and I’m a chance, so I’m taking on board every word he speaks to give myself the best possible chance.”

Standing at 183cm and tipping the scales at 94 kilograms, Orton is amongst the quickest players at the club over 40 metres, outclassing several outside backs. He’s also one of the strongest players in power-to-weight ratio.

How did you find the Toyota Cup last season?

It was a tough-but-good year. I broke the heel bones in both my feet during the pre-season and couldn’t train again until the second round of the Toyota Cup. So I had to cut my teeth in local grade footy and then played off the bench for the first half of the season and was a starter in the back half. I really enjoyed the back half of the year.

You obviously impressed first-grade coach Matt Elliott, being drafted into the fulltime training squad. How have you found the transition?

I’m really enjoying it. I’ve learned a lot more skills and learned how to push myself a bit better. Training with the older boys has made a lot of difference, I feel. I’m stronger, faster and doing things I’ve never done before. I’m fitter, too – in forwards’ testing I’m up there with the strongest forwards in the club.

There’s a lot of competition for positions in the forwards this year after the mass player clean-out. What are you doing to keep your name in discussions?

I’m just giving it my absolute all every day and hanging off every word Matt Elliott or any of the others players or coaching staff have to say. I listen closely, do what I’m told and just work as hard as I possibly can. I turn 21 this year so that means I’m not eligible for Toyota Cup anymore. It’s make or break – and I’m determined to make it.

What’s your position of choice, back row or prop?

Second row is my preferred position – I think it’s suited to my size. But I can play front row, too. I think prop is where Matty sees me playing because he says I’m a tough nut – a bloke who’ll just have a go and get a bit loose. They like sending me in first into the battle.

What’s your best asset that sets you apart from other forwards at the club?

I think my speed as a forward is my most valuable asset. I’m pretty strong for my size but I feel like I can harass the backs because I can beat them in a few of the sprints at training! I’m pretty strong in my power-to-weight ratio, and that works well with my speed.

What do you do for a crust?

I’ve never been one of the superstars who can just play footy for a living; I’ve always had to work. And, I want something to fall back on when my footy career’s over. I don’t want to be one of those blokes who has nothing. I’ve got a contractor’s licence as a gas-fitter, but I’ve been doing a plumbing apprenticeship the past couple of years. I’m in my third year and doing my TAFE work while I’m training fulltime.

How do you manage both?

My employers are pretty understanding; they’ve given me six months’ leave without pay. They still pay for my TAFE and just said if I keep going with the NRL and I’m successful, that we’ll sort something out then. But until then, they’re happy for me to enjoy the opportunity. They’re really supportive. And last year my foreman was very encouraging of me to have a crack in Toyota Cup. He said if I never tried I’d always be asking myself, what if?

It looks like you’ve got the support of family, your employers and the club; what are your personal goals for the season?

I want to actually make it into NRL for a little bit – a few games in a row – and show them that I’m worth keeping around. I’m aiming for a fulltime spot next season and I want to use this season as a building block to that. I want to play four games minimum and keep improving every week, whether it be NRL or Premier League. And not take a backwards step.

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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