Demoted Canberra halfback Mitch Cornish and new Rabbitohs half Darren Nicholls will combine for the NSW Cup Representative Team against Queensland Residents on Sunday in a game that has plenty of meaning for both of them.
Nicholls was a Wests Tigers junior, and played in the 2009 NYC grand final where his side narrowly went down to a Gareth Widdop-inspired Storm side, then graduated to the NSW Cup before moving to France. On his return to Australia he found himself again in the NSW Cup for North Sydney – with Rabbitohs pair Adam Reynolds and John Sutton blocking his path to first grade.
After moving to the Wyong Roos in 2014 Nicholls was snapped up by Brisbane as back-up for Ben Hunt and Ben Barba in 2014 before somewhat ironically being brought back to Souths barely two weeks ago due to injuries to the two men who were keeping him out of first grade two years ago in Sutton (broken jaw) and Reynolds (knee).
Cornish started the year in first grade before being one of the men to pay the price for a slowish start to the year, being dropped to Mounties by Raiders coach Ricky Stuart in favour of the more experienced Sam Williams.
Nicholls said the shift south was mainly handled by his manager but he hopes to crack a first-grade spot at some point despite being offered no guarantees by Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire.
"We liaised with the Broncos and then with Souths and back at the Bunnies. I think [injuries were a factor], just to have a bit of cover there, and there was a bit of an injury crisis there," Nicholls told NRL.com at NSW rep training at Brisbane's Easts Leagues during the week.
Nicholls said Maguire told him just to get himself settled and get to know the plays and the players at the club.
"There's a big emphasis on the wrestle and winning 'D' [defence] so I've been doing a bit of work on that. It's good, they've got a really good training ethic and good culture there," he said.
"They're a big side so they play fairly straight and direct and the halves play off the back of the big Burgess boys and stuff like that. I've had a bit to do with Luke Keary, he's been pretty helpful. With Reyno being out he hasn't been doing much ball work but Sutto's a big help at training. Because it's a broken jaw he's still been doing ball work so he's always a big help with his experience."
Nicholls was not too sure about how soon Reynolds and Sutton would be back from injury, but hoped there "could be a chance" of a first grade debut in the next few weeks.
"My goal is to play NRL but I'll just keep playing my best footy [in NSW Cup]. I've got an opportunity on Sunday [against Queensland Residents] to show my talents," he said.
"This is probably the best level of footy I've played so it's a good opportunity to show my skills and get a victory over Queensland."
Meanwhile Cornish said he understood Stuart's decision after being told he'd be back in Mounties for a while but was looking at the rep game against Queensland Residents as a chance to further his development.
"I think it's a good step for me moving forward, it's a good confidence booster getting picked in the side and hopefully we get the job done on Sunday," Cornish said.
Cornish was also relishing the chance to work with Nicholls.
"He's been unreal, we complement each other well, he's a good player. You can see that from his games in the NSW Cup and I can't wait to play with him. I heard he was going well up there in Q Cup [for Intrust Super Cup side Norths Devils] then mid-season he moved back to Rabbitohs and good luck to him."
Of his own demotion, Cornish conceded Stuart "had to do something".
"We weren't getting the wins, he had to do something and it paid off for him so what can I say – I can only try and play some good footy and try and get back up there," he said.
"It was a big learning curve and I'll definitely learn from it. It was always going to be a tough year but I'll be ready to go for next time."
NSW Cup Representative coach Garth Brennan also praised the pair and when asked who had been the leaders at training nominated the side's "spine" of Cornish and Nicholls, as well as Sharks fullback Nathan Gardner and Wyong hooker Mitch Williams.
"I just think [Nicholls'] leadership... he's strong in defence, he's got a good kicking game and he's composed," Brennan said of the decision to select the new Rabbitoh just two weeks after his return from the Intrust Super Cup.
"I know [Wyong coach] Rip Taylor's coached him previously at Wyong at the start of last year and has a high opinion of him and I've heard some really good reports of how he was playing in Queensland Cup prior to him returning down to sign with South Sydney."
Nicholls and Cornish and the rest of the VB NSW Cup Representative team take on Queensland Residents at Langlands Park in Brisbane at 1:40pm on Sunday.