O'Neill's Origin flame burns again
Twelve months after being told his future on the Storm would be confined to the wing, Justin O'Neill has thrust his name back into contention for the Queensland right centre spot vacated by Justin Hodges.
Plagued by a fractured ankle last season that saw his time in the top grade resemble that of a yo-yo, O'Neill was granted a release by Melbourne at the end of 2014 and quickly linked with the Cowboys, the team he supported as a kid growing up in North Queensland.
After somewhat of a shaky start to the season O'Neill found his groove when he moved into the centres to replace the injured Tautau Moga and scored two tries against his former club in the Preliminary Final before grabbing another in the Telstra Premiership Grand Final victory over Brisbane.
His 13 tries for the season were three more than the man tipped to replace Hodges as the Maroons' new right centre, Will Chambers, and he had 17 line breaks in 26 games compared to Chambers' eight from 25 games.
Called in as emergency cover for Darius Boyd ahead of Origin I in 2013 but not needed, O'Neill said that the dramatic change in fortunes at North Queensland has re-ignited his desire to represent his state at the game's highest level.
"It probably burns in my belly a bit stronger than before," O'Neill told NRL.com of his Origin ambition.
"That probably wasn't as much of a focus for me last year or this year, the focus was just to get back playing consistent footy and I couldn't have asked for a better year.
"Now it's been spoken about that we've set a standard for ourselves and we want to keep that standard and work on that and build from that.
"My next goal would definitely be to aim to play great footy again for the Cows and hopefully an Origin call-up or to be named in the Emerging squad would be great."
With his body back to 100 per cent to start the 2015 season, the 24-year-old said it was a try against South Sydney in Round 6 that helped him to overcome confidence issues that had impacted on his performances in the opening month.
Playing on the right wing in jersey No.21, O'Neill leapt high above South Sydney opposite Alex Johnston to snare a Johnathan Thurston chip kick to the corner in the first half, his confidence taking a similar trajectory in the weeks that followed.
"I scored a try in the Rabbitohs game down in Sydney and after that try it kind of felt like I'd just gotten enough confidence that I could build on that and continue to build through the back-end of the season. It felt like that's exactly what happened," O'Neill said.
"Last year was a rough year. Injuries, in and out of the first grade squad and wasn't playing at the level I was happy with so it's been a massive turnaround.
"The start of the year obviously wasn't the best for me and the team but we definitely turned it around and with that came confidence.
"I started to find my connection and find my place in the team on the right side and I think in the end our right side finished off the season really well.
"All I needed was a bit of confidence and to be back at my best all I had to do was work hard.
"It was always there, you never forget how you catch a ball, you never forget all the natural attributes to your game so I just had to find it again."
Having been part of the Cowboys' tour of regional North Queensland last Sunday O'Neill is now free to enjoy some downtime, a clean bill of health meaning he will be fit and raring to begin the premiership defence when Paul Green's men commence pre-season training in late November.