Australia Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga says if he could have named another player in the squad before this week's team announcement, Reagan Campbell-Gillard was high on the list of candidates.
The Panthers' most consistent forward in 2017, Campbell-Gillard received a late call-up into the squad following the withdrawal of Andrew Fifita, who will join Cowboys lock-forward Jason Taumalolo and play for Mate Ma'a Tonga.
Rather than dwell on the loss of Fifita, who admitted his heart was not with Australia for the tournament, Meninga chose to focus on the inclusion of Campbell-Gillard – who joins six other debutants in the 24-man squad.
"[Reagan] has had a pretty consistent year, certainly the back end of the year," Meninga told NRL.com
"He's been tremendous and been a really strong leader in the Penrith pack. They won seven in a row and it was on the back of him and James Tamou – those types of guys.
"He was always in the calculations but we only pick 24 in the squad, but he gets his chance now, which is great."
The news of Campbell-Gillard's inclusion came a day after the Windsor junior was crowned Merv Cartwright medallist for player of the year at the Panthers' club presentation evening on Wednesday night.
"We have a simple motto and that's if you carry the ball you carry the team and I've really taken that on board to get the team rolling," Campbell-Gillard said.
"Last year I struggled with consistency in my game and had three or four injuries that impacted my football.
"This year I've knuckled down in the pre-season. The environment that we have here is very humbling and it makes it easier."
Fresh after also being included in the 2017 Dally M team of the year for best interchange player, the 24-year-old thanked coach Anthony Griffin for the decision to shift him onto the bench mid-season.
Panthers general manager Phil Gould announced Griffin had extended his stay at Penrith until at least 2020 after taking the side to back-to-back years of finals appearances since his arrival in 2016.
"It's the relationship and bond with Hook," Campbell-Gillard said.
"He has been massive and it was the change we needed at the club. Ever since he's come here I've got all the respect for him.
"When it's relaxing time we can have a beer together and when it's time to knuckle down we show respect there.
"It was a different role I played at the backend of the season and to try and better my football. I got to play a lot more minutes.
"The last couple of years we're getting closer and closer to our goals."
Campbell-Gillard will join Panthers teammate Josh Mansour in the Australian side for the tournament after the winger was called in to replace Darius Boyd, who was ruled out through injury.