Cornish eyes starting half role at Raiders
This time last year, Canberra young gun Mitch Cornish was the next big thing.
Fast forward 12 months and... he's still the next big thing.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart held the Junior Kangaroo back in 2014, opting to start the year with prodigious talent Jack Wighton at five-eighth alongside senior playmaker Terry Campese at halfback, while Cornish graduated from NYC to NSW Cup.
Cornish continued to bide his time in the lower grades, turning in several strong performances for Mounties while the senior side struggled through a rotating roster.
Campese played nine games at halfback and 10 at five-eighth, and Wighton played nine at five-eighth before being moved to centre and eventually fullback, where he excelled at the back end of the year.
Josh McCrone, who spent most of the 2014 pre-season focusing on a switch into the hooking rotation, ended up playing more games at halfback for Canberra in 2014 than anyone, with 13 starts.
Now-Bronco Anthony Milford is about the only man guaranteed not to return to Canberra's halves rotation in 2015 after playing five games at five-eighth, partnering Cornish in the final two rounds of the season.
After six games off the bench with little genuine opportunity to show his wares, Cornish was finally cut loose as an 80-minute half for those final two matches – with immediate success, helping guide the side to wins over Wests Tigers and Parramatta.
With the side now back in pre-season training, Cornish told NRL.com it was his "number one goal" to cement a spot as a starting first grade half in 2015.
"I knew I had to bide my time; I personally thought I had a bit to work on before I stepped up to first grade and it was good to do that with Mounties," Cornish said of the delayed start to his NRL career.
The 21-year-old might have played his way into the starting side but was taking nothing for granted this early in the pre-season, with any number of players vying for spots in the halves – including former Wests Tigers five-eighth and new Canberra recruit Blake Austin.
"All the boys are working hard but nothing's guaranteed with all the new recruits, but I'm definitely putting my head down," Cornish said. "Definitely no-one's safe, you've still got to work hard and everyone's putting in."
Wighton has been doing some work at fullback "just to get his head around it if he does get put back there" but can also jump into the halves if needed, while 17-year-old Lachlan Croker – nephew of Raiders legend Jason – has also spent time there, according to Cornish.
That's in addition to regulars like McCrone, although Cornish diplomatically avoided questions regarding Campese, who has been linked with a possible switch to the UK Super League.
Cornish was more forthcoming on the club's new recruits, who include Storm winger Sisa Waqa and English Test hooker Josh Hodgson, as well as Austin.
"Sisa and Josh are both professionals, they've really hit the ground running, they've all come in and showed they want to be in the starting side come Round 1.
"Josh Hodgson didn't even want any time off once he came back from the England side, he's come straight in and he's been really good.
"And Sisa being from Melbourne, obviously they're very professional down there and he's brought that here so they've both been unreal."
Cornish's immediate goal is to get through the pre-season while staying fit and healthy without any injuries.
"It's probably the biggest thing that can stop your progression is those little niggling injuries, so I'm just looking to stay injury-free and get that starting spot next year," he said.
Coach Ricky Stuart – himself Canberra's greatest ever halfback – is also keeping a close eye on all the Raiders playmakers, Cornish said.
"He does everything with all our halves; he was one of the best ever so he does take a lot of interest in the things all our halves do. He's very good and we're all lucky to have him there as a mentor."
Canberra's winning finish to the season was a source of confidence for the younger players in particular heading into 2015, he added.
"Especially when we were rattled with injuries and had a couple of key players out – it gives a lot of confidence for the young guys. We really wanted to finish the season well."