Watene-Zelezniak loving his time at fullback
Before Dylan Edwards suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, it had been more than two years since Penrith Panthers star Dallin Watene-Zelezniak had started an NRL game in his preferred position of fullback.
Go back to round two in 2016 and a 20-year-old Watene-Zelezniak filled in for an injured Will Smith in the Panthers backline. He played the rest of the season on the wing but it was a game he remembers despite losing 18-16 to the Bulldogs.
"You are around the ball a bit more; get the ball in your hands more, which I like to do," Watene-Zelezniak told NRL.com of wearing the No.1 jersey.
"You get to go anywhere on the field – you're not restricted – which is why I love playing fullback. I'm really enjoying it at the moment – life's good."
Rugby league's "X-factor" for Watene-Zelezniak is the open ground he finds at fullback.
"For me it's when I get the ball and some open space. I don't hear the crowd, all I hear is my heartbeat. That's one thing I really love. The crowd could be roaring but I don't hear them."
It had been 52 Telstra Premiership games since Watene-Zelezniak was given the responsibility of the custodian's role, but he has slipped seamlessly back into it.
"Everyone knows the player Dylan is and how good he is. So I just knew I had to step up for the team and try to fill his shoes," he said.
"That's hard to do because in some ways he's the perfect fullback – running all the time, seems to be everywhere.
"I just play whatever is there in front of me. I'm not as fast as Dyl but I play a little more on my instincts – whatever presents itself I go with.
"It's where I grew up playing as a kid. I've sort of waited my turn in the NRL. It sucks that it comes through an injury but I'll just do my part of the team.
"I speak to Dyl every day and we share tips. It's good to have him still here around the club."
There is mutual respect between the pair - and there is definitely respect from Watene-Zelezniak towards for Canberra who the Panthers face on Friday night at GIO Stadium.
The Raiders back five of Nick Cotric, Jarrod Croker, Jack Wighton, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana are fresh as daisies after a bye last round and no Origin players amongst their backline.
"They are all quality but Rapana I find a particularly freaky player. Hopefully, we all turn up on the day so we're prepared for him."
As for the Panthers being on top of the NRL ladder, he is confident it's not a temporary thing.
"What we need to focus on is being number one after the first week in October – that's when being number one counts in my eyes.
"We've got a lot of work still to do that but I think we're on the right track."