As the Charity Shield concept heads towards its 32nd game this weekend, legendary South Sydney winger Nathan Merritt says the traditional fixture is more than just a pre-season trial.
With the match now a mainstay in the Rabbitohs' and Dragons' annual schedules, Merritt said the enormity of the game and the charity connotations involved – with proceeds from the match going towards Souths Cares and the St George Foundation – has allowed it be seen as more than just a mere trial.
Both clubs have named strong squads for Saturday's game, and Merritt, who recently joined the NRL's One Community as an ambassador, said the event is as big as ever.
"The Charity Shield is definitely more than just a trial," Merritt told NRL.com.
"It's all about the community and that's why it's called what it is because there are charities behind it. It's a great event for the two teams and a great chance to raise some money.
"The Charity Shield was always a stepping stone towards Round 1 for us at the Rabbitohs when I played. It was pretty much like our Round 1 because that's when we would typically put a good squad forward to test ourselves. At the Bunnies, we usually would plan on building from that performance and take it into the NRL from there."
The charity associations involved within the fixture are also an inspiring factor for Merritt, who spent plenty of time throughout his career doing community work.
Born and bred in the Redfern area, Merritt said the opportunity to help children – whether Charity Shield-based or not – was always satisfying.
"Just being a local boy that grew up around Waterloo and Redfern, there wasn't much opportunity for kids growing up around that area and they didn't have many avenues to travel down," Merritt said.
"For me to be able to play NRL it allowed me to open up the eyes of young kids coming through, who had nothing like I once did, and inspire them to do something with their life.
"Whether it is with healthy lifestyles or choices and exercise and stuff like that, after the way I grew up I just wanted to help other kids have brighter futures."
Only months into his NRL retirement, Merritt believes his beloved South Sydney club is primed for another big season – starting with the Charity Shield after a successful Nines campaign.
Despite the Rabbitohs losing Sam and Luke Burgess, Ben Te'o and Merritt himself, Souths' all-time leading try scorer reckons Michael Maguire will have his squad prepared for a huge premiership-defending year.
"South Sydney is always going to be a competitive team. Just having Madge there gives the club that competitive drive they need," Merritt said.
"I'm looking forward to watching them this year. They still have their great spine at the club to go along with the Burgess twins [George and Tom] so that's what you need. It's definitely a big season ahead for the boys."