Young Dragons halfback Drew Hutchison says he felt no pressure stepping in for a legend of the sport in Benji Marshall on Monday night and hopes to claim the No.7 jersey Marshall will leave vacant when 2017 rolls around.
After a run of just one win from their past seven games put the Dragons out of playoff contention heading into the final two rounds, coach Paul McGregor made the call to give young three-gamer Hutchison his first top grade start of the season with an eye to the future.
Marshall returns for a farewell match in Round 26 that may potentially be his last in the NRL if he doesn't find a suitor for next season. Marshall has handed his demotion with class throughout and went to lengths to make sure Hutchison felt comfortable taking his place last weekend.
Speaking after a reasonable game personally in which a couple of poor kicks were mixed with some wonderful touch-finders as well as a powerful solo try, Hutchison said he didn't feel any external pressure heading into the game and now hopes to help feeder club the Illawarra Cutters to a strong finals series.
Following that, he aims to nail down the red and white No.7 jersey for Round 1 next year. But as much as he wanted this shot at first grade, the 21-year-old Albion Park junior felt a tinge of sadness at Marshall's absence.
"When the team was first named I felt a bit sad; like he's been one of my idols growing up and he sort of came up to me and gave me a pat on the shoulder and said 'no hard feelings' and that he's really going to help me through this week," Hutchison said.
"He definitely did that and he made it easy for me to go out there and play my own game [against Parramatta]."
Despite his try, Hutchison was harsh in his assessment of his own game.
"I had two rubbish kicks there that led to seven tackle sets and that just can't happen in the game these days. I'll definitely be working on that for next week and looking to build on it for next year."
However he said the week overall had been a good experience and paid particular credit to Marshall's assistance.
"Not only is he a good player he's one of the best blokes in our team and that's probably the main thing he's helped me with – he's a good man to go to, you can always lean on him for advice and not only the footy side of things, it's everyday life that he's good with you," Hutchison said.
"We work together every week; he's got the locker next to mine and we're always talking to each other. Obviously he's got a very good running game, he's a smart player, he's been around for 10 or 11 years so I can always lean on him for advice and have a chat about our games."
Hutchison denied it was tough mentally to prepare, rather he suggested it was easier with less pressure on knowing he had one week to impress and the finals were out of the question.
"No I don't think it was tough, it was actually pretty easy to get your head around. You get 80 minutes and you put your best foot forward and you've got nothing to lose really," Hutchison said.
"At the end of the day we can't make the semis so it's sort of, chance your arm a bit more and being told you've got 80 minutes to do your best, you leave it all on the line," he added.
He also hoped to further develop his combination with five-eighth and captain Gareth Widdop as time goes on.
"He's a good fella, he's really easy to get along with. He probably left it up to me a lot to organise things and take the kicking in my own hands [against Parramatta] so he's really good to get along with and easy to play with," was Hutchison's assessment.
He was unequivocal about his hopes to make his mark in first grade next season with the No.7 jersey there for the taking.
"Absolutely. I genuinely hope that's the case and I'll be training very hard in the pre-season to do that," he said.
"Obviously there's other good players at the club that can play in the halves so I'll be doing my best to try and stay there and play with Gareth next year.
"The club hasn't signed another half for next year and I really hope they don't and hopefully I can be the starting No.7 next year."
He hoped his direct style may be able to add something to the team's attack in 2017.
"Criticism of the attack's probably warranted, we haven't scored enough points this year and that's it. Personally, I think my game, I play very straight and I suppose I'm a bigger body so running game is a bit more of a threat. I think I can help with the team's attack next year," he added.