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Meninga praises 'unrecognisable' Dugan

Josh Dugan was so paranoid about giving people a reason to question his commitment to the Australian side he rarely went out with his teammates during the World Cup.

He was so scarred by the public outcry over his State of Origin day out with Blake Ferguson in Lennox Head, he went to extraordinary lengths in a bid to ensure there would be no ammunition for his critics. To prove to Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga that he was worth the gamble.

"He's been tarnished with a brush from way back," Meninga told

"And we're still trying to rub that tarnish off. It's not fair."

Dugan changed to the point he was described as "unrecognisable" by the Australian coach, who heaped praise on the Kangaroos centre for his maturity and leadership during the World Cup.

There are few better judges of character in rugby league than Meninga, who saw the evolution of one of the sport's most maligned figures throughout nearly two months in camp.

Kangaroos centre Josh Dugan.
Kangaroos centre Josh Dugan. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos/NRL Photos

Dugan's teammates regularly asked him out to social events and nightspots, but the answer was rarely yes.

"He made a concerted effort to not put himself in situations that could lead to him getting into trouble," Meninga said.

"He's been able to identify now, that when Josh Dugan goes out to have a beer, someone has a camera on him. How silly is that? He has to live in this bubble world. That's so wrong. That's the problem. If they had mobile phones in my day, no one would be playing. Josh has matured so much the last few years he has become unrecognisable the way he carries himself.

"People see him with a beer in his hand and they go back to what they read and hear in the news. That's the world he's living in, at the moment. I feel sorry for him, to be honest. That's not the real Josh Dugan. The real Josh Dugan enjoys himself, but if he has a beer in his hand he gets crucified for it.

"I trust him. When you have that trust, they'll do everything for you. He still celebrated but did it in a different way. He did it internally. He didn't want to go out and party. Don't get me wrong, he went out but it wasn't what people think. He didn't put himself above the footy team. He's learnt being part of us that it's OK to have a good time but you need to think about others. That wouldn't have happened five years ago."

Five years ago, Dugan was ready to walk out on rugby league altogether.

He had grown tired of the criticism, admittedly largely brought upon by his own actions and poor decisions, and was prepared to throw in the towel.

"I didn't think I would ever play footy again let alone be here and play for Australia," Dugan said as he gets ready to arrive at the Cronulla Sharks for pre-season training in January.

"When I was at Canberra it was a bit up and down there. I went through a bad time and I probably thought about quitting footy. I didn't want the limelight anymore and cop the stuff I was copping. It was probably my own doing, but at the same time I wanted to run and hide to get away from it all.

"I definitely contemplated not coming back. I had the Dragons give me a lifeline and the rest is history. They showed faith in me and I have them to thank for a lot of what I've done up until now. And Canberra as well. No matter what happened down there, that was a stepping stone for me and a place I started."

The Lennox Head incident with Ferguson during State of Origin, which Meninga believes didn't deserve the backlash it received, took the gloss away from the off-field inroads Dugan had made since joining the Dragons.

"I honestly thought, what's wrong with that?" Meninga said of Dugan's decision to drink five days before a game.

"People have different opinions but I can't see anything wrong with what he did. What harm did he do? Did he commit any crimes? Did it affect his performance? None of those things happened."

Cronulla Sharks recruit Josh Dugan.
Cronulla Sharks recruit Josh Dugan. ©

Just when Dugan appeared to have lost faith in the game and began contemplating his future once again, Meninga called him into the national side for the World Cup.

Dugan has always held Meninga in high regard, which is why he made the sacrifices he did during the tournament to ensure he justified the coach's faith.

"It's the confidence he has in me," Dugan said.

"No matter how much self doubt I have in myself. I said when I first got into camp I probably didn't deserve to be here because of the year I had with injuries, up and down form and all that sort of thing. Mal came straight to me after and said, 'look, I picked you because you deserve to be here'. To me that was a massive weight off my shoulders. I went out there and did everything I could to perform best for the boys.

"I've had Mary (Paul McGregor) at the Dragons and he's been unreal for me. I'm still pretty close to him and I think I will be for a long time. He's shown faith in me. They're just genuine people, that's the best thing about it. I like to think of myself as a pretty genuine and a straight shooter. They're both the same. I guess that's why we get along so well."

Dugan has a far different outlook on rugby league to when he first started. Once living with a sense of entitlement, Dugan now cherishes what he has earned.

"It's probably only the last few years I've started to appreciate the things I've got and appreciate the jerseys I get," he said. 

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