If New South Wales coach Ricky Stuart was hoping to find his own version of Billy Slater to don the No.1 jersey for the Blues in the coming years, he need look no further than Nathan Gardner.
The 20-year-old Cronulla fullback has been a revelation for the Sharks since making his debut in Round 10 last season – his energetic displays and ability to break a game wide open not dissimilar to the brilliance of Queensland's superstar custodian.
And there is a good reason for that.
As a promising teenager rising through the ranks, Gardner idolised Slater, studied his every move and even now spends hours watching video of his hero to find out exactly what it is that makes the Melbourne Storm veteran such a special talent.
"I've sat down and have done a lot on Billy with my assistant coach," Gardner told NRL.com ahead of tomorrow night's clash with North Queensland.
"It's just his support play and the way he gets himself around the footy every tackle. He is never walking, he is always right on the ball and always in the right positions. He does great things in attack but people don't notice some of the stuff he does off the ball in defence, so mainly it's his support play and work off the ball."
Although Gardner has brought his own unique style to a Sharks attack that has stagnated in recent seasons, he is also a keen student of the game and is familiar with the idiosyncrasies of most of his rival NRL fullbacks.
"A lot of the players I play against now, I remember sitting at home watching them when I was a little kid and they were my favourite players. I always wanted to play like them but I never thought I'd get to play against them," he said.
"The main one is Billy Slater and his involvement in games. It's going to be tough this week too playing Matty Bowen – he is one of the best fullbacks that has played the game.
"I do watch a lot of fullbacks. I try not to copy too much of their games and keep my own style but there are still a lot of things I can look at and put in my game to help me be a better fullback."
Gardner's talents at the Sharks haven't gone unnoticed with his former coach and now NSW State of Origin coach Stuart telling NRL.com last week that he had been particularly pleased with the young fullback's progress in 2011.
Gardner was one of a number of rising stars invited to the ‘Blues in Waiting' camp held in January and although he is still some way down the pecking order, he admits the experience certainly piqued his curiosity.
"I think it just gave me a lot more confidence that maybe down the track they see me as a representative player," he said.
"The biggest thing for me was confidence, especially coming into my second year of footy. I just wanted to concentrate on playing first grade but it gives you a chance to reset goals."
Gardner is quick to reject any suggestions of a shock call-up this season – "No, definitely not – there are a lot of good fullbacks around," he answers politely – but ask how he expects he would handle the Origin cauldron and his response is far more positive.
"I mean, it's hard to say," he said. "I have no idea what it would be like to play that sort of footy but I would always tell myself that I'd be able to play in any sort of footy that I would get picked in. But you know, I just want to concentrate on helping the Sharks at first grade level."
That much he has certainly done.
As one of a trio of youngsters in Cronulla's key playmaking roles alongside halves Wade Graham and Albert Kelly, the Sharks are already looking far more threatening in 2011 after scoring fewer points than any other side over the past two seasons.
And he appears to have avoided that dreaded second-year syndrome that has befallen so many wunderkinds.
"Last year I exceeded every expectation I had set for myself," Gardner said.
"A lot of people did talk to me about second-year syndrome but I've got a lot of good people around me that keep me level headed and keep me working hard. I always had confidence in myself that it's a bit of a myth I think.
"You've just got to keep working hard and if you do have a bad game or a couple of bad games you can't talk yourself into that second-year syndrome thing. It's only early but hopefully I can keep playing consistent footy."
Despite some promising signs, the Sharks find themselves with just two wins from their opening six games in 2011.
But with three narrow losses in their past three outings – including a cruel last-minute heart-breaker against Manly in Round 5 – Gardner has high hopes for what this current Sharks outfit can achieve in the coming years.
"Me and the halves would like to think that they're going to stick with us young guys and really try and build a good combination for the next few years to come," he said.
"It gives you a lot of confidence that we're only young but they've thrown us in there and are telling the boys to lead us around the park. ‘Flanno' (coach Shane Flanagan) is telling me to get more involved and I tried to be a bit more of a ball-player in the off-season. He spoke to me about trying to be a bit more dominant with the ball.
"It's a bit hard at times when you've got Paul Gallen or Kade Snowden demanding the footy and you're trying to get it off them but I suppose the longer it goes on the more comfortable I'm getting."
Late NRL news:
- Manly have lost star fullback Brett Stewart to a hamstring injury – for the fourth week in a row. William Hopoate again returns to fullback with Michael Oldfield coming in on the wing.
- Josh Dugan is expected to make his return from a calf injury against Newcastle on Sunday, with captain Alan Tongue also likely to take the field. However, halfback Matt Orford has been ruled out with a back injury.
- Brisbane back-rower Matt Gillett has been ruled out for 10 weeks after having surgery on his injured foot during the week.