He was tipped by some to be too much of a lightweight to cut it in first grade but Matt Dufty silenced those critics in a big way with a star showing on debut as he helped guide the Dragons to a much-needed 52-22 win over the Sea Eagles on Sunday.
With 54 tries in 65 Holden Cup matches – including 23 four-pointers and 22 assists last season – there were always going to be high hopes for the Penshurst RSL junior in the NRL and the 20-year-old didn't disappoint with 188 metres, two line breaks, a try and two assists.
Called up during the week as a replacement for regular fullback Josh Dugan who had been ruled out with a hamstring complaint, Dufty overcame some pre-game nerves to spark the Dragons' stuttering attack.
"It was such a blur. The game from zero to 80 went so quickly and I'm just so grateful for the opportunity 'Mary' (Dragons coach Paul McGregor) gave me today," he said after the game.
"I knew earlier in the week that Dugan was in a bit of doubt but I only found out on Thursday night that he wasn't going to play. Mary told me he was going to give me the start so I was over the moon.
"We had a day off the day after he told me so I was feeling good, but then I got here for captain's run and I saw all the people cleaning the stadium and marking out the field and I got really nervous. Last night I couldn't sleep just thinking about the game. I was so nervous when I got here but 'Dugey' told me to relax and take a breath and just play my game. That just calmed me down and set me on the right path."
The biggest knock on Dufty as a first-grader was whether his smaller frame could cut it in a competition dominated by bigger bodies, but at 81 kilos – three kilos heavier than this time last year – his size actually proved to be an advantage with the defence unable to keep up with his blinding speed and flashy footwork.
"I didn't really find an issue with the physicality – Dylan Walker jammed me once – but that was alright," he said.
"It was good having big bodies around and it wasn't really as big a step up as I thought it was going to be. It was still the fastest and hardest game I've ever played, but I don't know if it's the adrenalin, but I loved it."
With Dugan set to link up with the Sharks next season, Dufty knows there could be an opening for him as he looks to cement his spot in the top grade.
However, the Red V rookie doesn't want to get caught up in hypotheticals at the moment, with Dufty more concerned about learning from the Cronulla-bound custodian.
"I took the advice that some of the coaches gave me at the start of the year: when I start focussing on other things outside footy like what's going to happen next year, I tend to lose track of what I've got to do in the game," Dufty revealed.
"It's not really on my mind at the moment but it probably will be in the pre-season, but that's a couple of months away.
"Next year it'll probably be one of my main goals, but Dugey's here and he's a world-class player so I'm just going to learn as much as I can because he's one of the best competitors in the game and someone I look up to."
The Dragons have indicated that they will look in-house for Dugan's replacement which bodes well for a guy like Dufty who impressed his coach on debut.
"We haven't replaced 'Duges' so it's a good opportunity to give the kids an opportunity with most of our players available. With Josh going out there's a position there," McGregor said after the game.
"We had a lot of experience there today so it was a nice time to make his debut at home in a nice afternoon with the home crowd.
"He showed what he's got – he's got the ability to burn people with his speed and he's got a really nice catch and pass. His strength is a bit deceptive because he's so quick he can get away from people so he can use his natural strength."
With Dugan set to return for Saturday's trip to Newcastle, Dufty knows he'll most likely return to Intrust Super Premiership duties. But in the meantime, he can celebrate a career highlight that included a try in the final two minutes that iced his dream debut.
"I can't really remember it!" he said of the 79th minute try that saw him fend off Tom Trbojevic on the try-line.
"I got an offload and then I was through the line and Joey Lussick ankle tapped me and I kind of tripped and then saw Tommy right there and I was like 'oh no'. He went high and then let go and I was over the line and I got up and it was crazy.
"The fans were going off, the boys were going off and it was the best feeling I've ever had."