O'Neill's Maroons call-up a 'privilege'
He was just minutes away from joining the select group of footballers to represent Queensland in the State of Origin arena but just 12 months ago Justin O'Neill thought he might be confined to reserve grade.
Invited back into the Maroons fold at last weekend's Emerging Origin camp in Brisbane, the Cowboys centre reflected on how close he came to representing his state and how dramatically his fortunes have changed in the past year.
When Darius Boyd was given "virtually no hope" of overcoming an ankle injury in time to take his place on the wing for Game One of the 2013 Origin Series, O'Neill was called in as cover from the Melbourne Storm.
As other members of the squad failed to make the right impression on new Queensland coach Kevin Walters during the Emerging Origin camp last weekend, O'Neill was relishing his inclusion and the prospect of one day pulling on the Maroons jersey that barely eluded him at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
"I went in not really knowing how serious Darius's ankle was and coming into camp I didn't know whether he was going to be right or he wasn't," O'Neill told NRL.com of his call-up in 2013.
"I was preparing as best as I could whether I was going to play or not and I was just real nervous and excited at the same time. If I was to get a game to coming to the realisation that this could be my first game of Origin.
"I probably had my mind set to play right up until warm up because I really didn't know what could happen.
"It was kind of surreal. I was there as part of the team but not really, just on the bench. That was an experience in itself."
A horror run of injuries throughout 2014 saw O'Neill's future at the Storm come into question and after five years and 67 NRL games for the club made the move home to Townsville with no guarantees of a first grade spot with the Cowboys.
A year later and he has won a second premiership, married long-time partner Chantelle and re-emerged as a genuine option to replace the retired Justin Hodges in the Maroons centres.
"Twelve months ago I didn't know whether I was staying with Melbourne or where I was going or where I was going to be playing footy," said the 24-year-old who has been named in a star-studded Cowboys team for this weekend's Downer NRL Auckland Nines.
"The headspace was a bit all over the shop but the year panned out pretty well and I'm happy with how everything went last year.
"I don't think I was worried about not having a club to play for but I was just worried whether I was going to get game time or whether I was going to be playing first grade or reserve grade.
"I didn't really know what the plan for me was at the time. I would've taken reserve grade or anything just to play some consistent footy and get some games back.
"I couldn't have asked for a better first year with the Cowboys and to be invited back or the Emerging squad camp is unreal.
"It's helped with the confidence and it's a privilege to be invited back again and to be a part of it all."