Dragon Darren Nicholls.

Nicholls to become oldest rookie in NRL history

Darren Nicholls has waited a decade to make his NRL debut but Dragons coach Paul McGregor has been preparing for the 29-year-old playmaker to fill Ben Hunt's No.7 jersey during State of Origin since the pre-season.

Nicholls, who has previously played lower grades for Penrith, Wests Tigers, South Sydney and Brisbane, will become the oldest debutant in NRL history after being one of five players called in to deputise for St George Illawarra's Origin stars on Thursday night against Melbourne at AAMI Park.

The playmaker, who also deputised for Hunt at the Broncos, won the NSWRL Chairman's Medal as player of the match in last year's Intrust Super Premiership grand final and led the Panthers to victory in the State Championship final against PNG Hunters before joining the Dragons.

He partnered Gareth Widdop in the halves during February's pre-season clash with Super League club Hull FC and has been working with him at training in anticipation of Hunt being unavailable for a match due to Origin commitments with Queensland.

Nicholls will become the oldest player to make his debut at the elite level since former Illawarra Steelers fullback Mark Taylor, who played three matches alongside future Dragons coach Paul McGregor in 1994.

According to League Information Services statistician David Middleton, Taylor was 29 years and 323 days old when he made his debut on July 10, 1994 against the Gold Coast Seagulls.

Nicholls will be 29 years and 80 days old in Thursday night's Telstra Premiership match against the Storm. 

New Dragons No.7 Darren Nicholls.
New Dragons No.7 Darren Nicholls.

Irish winger Brian Carney was 29 years and 260 days old when he made his NRL debut for Newcastle in 2006, while French prop Remi Casty was 29 years and 106 days old in his first appearance for Sydney Roosters in 2014 but both were internationals who had played at an elite level in Super League.

Nicholls is 18th on the list of oldest players to have made their premiership debut since 1980, behind Taylor and the likes of John Lang, Frano Botica, Andy Platt and Tiaan Strauss, but all had played elsewhere at an elite level, including rugby union, or debuted before the formation of the NRL in 1998.

Nicholls, who turned 29 on April 15, will play halfback against the Storm behind a new-look Dragons pack, which features Intrust Super Premiership teammates Blake Lawrie, Jacob Host and Luciano Leilua.

Interchange prop Leeson Ah Mau will start for the first time this season, while Hame Sele and hooker Reece Robinson were named on the bench, along with Jeremy Latimore and Jason Nightingale.

With the Dragons in equal third place on the ISP ladder, Nicholls said the replacements would go into the match against the Storm confident they were capable of helping the club remain as outright NRL leaders.

"We are doing really well as a club," Nicholls said. "Coming first and third is a good position to be in. We started slowly in the ISP but we are going in the right direction.

"When you are winning, you have that confidence and you don't want a losing culture so with us winning as well as first grade the club has been successful for most of the year."

Lawrie, Host and Leilua all played in last Thursday night's 20-18 defeat of Parramatta, while Sele and Robinson have also had a taste of NRL action this season but Nicholls has been waiting for his chance for a decade after playing with the Tigers in 2008.

He played two years in France before returning to play for Wyong, had a season with Souths in 2013, joined the Broncos in 2014, linked again with the Rabbitohs in 2015 and moved back to Brisbane in 2016 before playing for Penrith in 2017.

Dragons forward Blake Lawrie.
Dragons forward Blake Lawrie.

"It's been a journey for me," he said. "I played Under 20s at the Tigers and had one year of reserves at the Tigers, then spent two years over in France, playing there, and have been in the Broncos system, at the Panthers and also Souths, then here [Dragons]."

Nicholls was signed by the Dragons as cover for Hunt and has been spent time at training with Widdop. He was rested from last weekend's 22-18 win over Western Suburbs Magpies in anticipation of playing in Melbourne.

 "I have done a few opposed sessions and been in with Gareth in the halves trying to work on that combination," he said.

Leilua said he and the other Dragons players were pleased Nicholls would finally get his chance against the Storm.

"Congratulations to Darren, he has been waiting for a long time for this and it is good that he is debuting at our club," Leilua said.

The 21-year-old forward is also pleased by Tariq Sims selection in the NSW squad after the pair had vied for the left second-row position made vacant by Joel Thompson's departure to Manly during the pre-season.

Sims won the spot and hasn't looked back but Leilua said he was keen to deputise for him against Melbourne and had been told by McGregor to expect to play the full 80 minutes.

"We were both pushing each other but it is good that he got the starting spot and look where he is now, he is playing State of Origin," Leilua said. "I will step into his shoes, he has set the bar really high and I have just got to go in there and do my job for the team."