Parramatta's fourth-string hooker, Cody Nelson, pushed out 80 minutes in his club debut after expecting to get a 25-minute opening stint – and topped the tackle count along the way.
The Eels are in the midst of a major injury crisis with three hookers – Nathan Peats (knee), Isaac De Gois (cheekbone) and Kaysa Pritchard (pec) all unavailable. Pritchard is out for the season while neither Peats or De Gois will be back until at least after the side's Round 18 bye.
Coach Brad Arthur was forced to call upon ex-Titans back-rower Nelson, who has been playing big minutes in NSW Cup but mostly as an edge back-rower.
With both Peats and Pritchard picking up injuries in Round 14 against Melbourne, Nelson was asked to go to dummy-half for Wentworthville in Round 15 with the NRL side on the bye to prepare him for a club debut in the No.9 jersey against St George Illawarra on Saturday night.
The move paid dividends with Nelson providing good service out of dummy half and getting through a mountain of defensive work, racking up a huge 54 tackles – 10 more than the Dragons' top tackler Mike Cooper and a stunning 23 more than the next best Eel, bench forward Pauli Pauli.
After the game, Eels coach Brad Arthur revealed he had planned on giving Nelson 25 minutes then replacing him with utility Joe Paulo at dummy half but with Nelson impressing with his fitness he ended up pushing out a huge 80-minute shift in his first NRL game of 2015.
"I was only planning to play him for 25 minutes and he just did his job. He got to dummy half, gave good service, listened to the calls and more importantly he was everywhere in defence," Arthur said.
Nelson told NRL.com he hadn't played dummy half since he was first coming into grade but is comfortable defending in the middle of the field.
"I've played lock a fair bit so it's not too different. A little bit of a different role, a bit more talk and a bit more control over where the ball goes but it was really good [Saturday night]," he said.
He admitted it got "pretty tough" towards the end of the game.
"I didn't know how my fitness was going to hold up. I haven't played NRL since the end of last year so I was really happy. I've trained really hard through this season and played big minutes in NSW Cup so I was really happy with it," he said.
"I started [this season] in the middle than started playing on the edge the last few weeks just because Joe Paulo and that have been back there. I played hooker last week and got through the game pretty well. I was going into the game [against the Dragons] pretty confident and came out of it really well."
Nelson has to an extent been a victim of the club's stressed second-tier salary cap situation. The number of players used by the club has meant Arthur has not been able to call on unused players unless there are further injuries, which is what happened coming out of the Storm game to hand Nelson his chance.
"With the second tier salary cap situation it was hurting me trying to get in there but we've lost three hookers and they needed somebody. I put my hand up and I'm more than happy with how I went," Nelson said.
Now that he has the spot he doesn't expect to retain it once Peats and De Gois are available but is expecting to fill the role until that happens, and hopes to take whatever opportunities are presented to him.
"I came down here as an edge back-rower but there are plenty of boys in that position at this club. I counted myself as pretty versatile so I've done what 'BA' has asked me, tonight he wanted me to play hooker and that's the job I've done for him.
"With the hooker situation we've got at the moment, Kaysa's long term, definitely not coming back and not sure when 'Peatsy' or 'Goisy' will be available so I'll be at nine until I get told otherwise."
Teammate Corey Norman also praised Nelson's club debut after the game.
"He was outstanding, 'BA' said after the game he was only going to give him 25 minutes then come off and get a bit of a spell but he played 80," Norman said.
"Cody's a very good defender and he did his job tonight."