Ballin's role in McIlwrick's rise
Wests Tigers hooker Matt Ballin has had a terrible run of luck.
A forgotten man in the last two seasons, the former Sea Eagles veteran has managed only three games since the move to the inner west in 2016 after back-to-back ACL injuries and a stop-start return to begin the year.
In January he told Wests Tigers TV of his desire to remain patient and in the meantime, he's guiding current No.9 Matt McIlwrick and young rookie Jacob Liddle off the paddock.
"Obviously you don't wish injury upon anybody especially Matty, who is such a great bloke and has been so influential for me particularly in the off-season," McIlwrick said of Ballin.
"That’s football and at the end of the day we play a contact sport and [injury] comes with the territory.
"He'll pull through and hopefully he's alright for the second half of the season."
Despite sitting on the sidelines, Ballin still remains an integral part in the development of the young duo, particularly with the departure of Tigers veteran Robbie Farah at the end of last season.
"We all do video together and he's the first one to point stuff out, particularly on the go he will gives us tips so that’s what you look for," McIlwrick said.
"He's helped me and 'Lids' out a fair bit, all three of us worked together on our passing, getting to know the team [in the pre-season].
"The way he looks at the game is unbelievable, his leadership and the way he carries himself around the team, he's well respected by everyone and that’s something you want to strive for, to earn your teammates' respect is the biggest thing you can have.
"It's been sad to see him go down but I've got an opportunity to put my hand up now and with Jacob Liddle in the side, he's a great young talent so hopefully we can [build] on that combination."
Opportunity is the one thing that McIlwrick has taken with both hands.
After stints with the Raiders, Roosters and Sharks prior to his arrival at Concord, the 25-year-old journeyman has played in the opening seven rounds of the Telstra Premiership – the longest streak of his NRL career and is beginning to call the joint venture home.
Playing under interim coach Andrew Webster and new leader Ivan Cleary has McIlwrick already reaping the rewards with the Kiwi-born rake playing longer minutes to average a tick under 60 per game - a 23-minute increase compared to his average of 37 in the opening three rounds.
As a result, he's returned serve with a career-best performance against the Cowboys in Townsville that included a try and two line-breaks, and another four-pointer against the Eels on Easter Monday.
"Ivan has been pretty clear what he wants from us so the future is bright," McIlwrick said.
"I'm sure over the next few weeks and months he will start to have [even] more of an influence on us.
"He's getting to know us just as much as we're learning about him.
"Footy is a funny game, when you're down you're down but all it takes is one win to get back up there again and we need to start winning games."
McIlwrick and the Wests Tigers will get their chance to bounce back when they take on the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.