Starling's quest to avoid 'fill-in' tag
Off-contract Manly prop Josh Starling is desperate for a big season to stake his claim for a contract extension – but he knows if that isn't possible he needs to grab the attention of other clubs before it's too late.
Starling makes his comeback to first grade in his club's visit to Leichhardt Oval this Monday night after playing in Manly's NSW Cup loss – coincidentally against the Tigers – at Campbelltown last week, following elbow surgery in January.
After having his 2015 season interrupted by knee injuries, the fit-again Starling and teammate Brenton Lawrence (back surgery) will both be raring to go in their first NRL hitouts of the season.
For Starling, the recall represents a chance to prove his belief that he should be a regular first grader rather than the guy that gets called up when injuries strike other players.
"This is my last year on contract at Manly so I'm hoping to have a big year and see if I can stay around," Starling said.
"[In your] last year, you've got to perform well. I want to stay here because it's a good club and I love all the boys but if it's not meant to be you've got to put yourself in a good position to have somewhere else to go.
"If you're not in the first grade team you don't want to be down in reserve grade kicking stones and not playing good footy otherwise no-one's going to want you anyway."
Starling said his off-season elbow cleanout was only minor but restricted his chances to impress the coaching staff in the club's trial games.
"It's an old reoccurring injury I needed to get cleaned out and fixed up. They decided it was time to do it in January just to get it out of the way," he said.
"I didn't want to get into the season then have to be one week in, one week out because it was sore. So I just had some bone spurs shaved off and some chipped off bone cleaned out of the joint and good as new.
"I didn't play much of the trial, I only played 20 minutes of the last trial game just coming back from my elbow, they wanted me to get my confidence back and my match fitness back and work on my defence because obviously that's going to be a big key for us this year."
Starling said running out in reserve grade last week only made him hungrier to put his stamp on things this week.
"You always want to play first grade but I understood where they were coming from and the calibre of players we've got here, it's hard to get angry. You can never sit around and kick stones, you have to get out there and work hard and try to get back in the team."
Starling said the closeness of the playing group at Manly was a key reason for his desire to stay at the club rather than look elsewhere.
"Even this year we had 17 new guys come into our squad and it was almost like nothing changed – everybody's welcoming and we always look out for each other, we always have time for each other even if someone's down there's always someone there to help pick you up or if someone's having a rough time on the field or off the field there's plenty of blokes around who live in the area to pick you up and say it's going to be all right.
"I had a good couple of years under 'Tooves' [Geoff Toovey], he gave me my first shot over here, I came over here and they didn't have many front-rowers so it was good to get that opportunity.
"I feel like I've played a fair bit of first grade now and I know what it takes to get in that team and stay there. That's what I want to do, I feel like I'm a first grader and I don't want to be the guy that just comes up and down that's a good replacement in case someone gets injured so I'm hoping to cement my spot wherever I can."