He grew up idolising Johnathan Thurston but after putting on 11 kilograms over the past two years Mitch Dunn is hoping to emulate another Cowboys legend.
In a well-beaten team in last Friday’s 29-10 loss to the Broncos, Dunn delivered an eye-catching performance when employed in the five-eighth position off the bench following the loss of winger Nene Macdonald just prior to half-time.
Dubbed "Dunny Bill" for the flick pass that produced a try just moments into his NRL debut against Manly in round 13 last season, he called on his junior days in the halves to lay on North Queensland’s first try for Jordan Kahu in the 58th minute against Brisbane.
He looked dangerous throughout his 43-minute stint – clocking up 90 run metres from eight carries – but rather than draw comparisons with Thurston the 22-year-old is destined to follow in the footsteps of another of his heroes, skilful second-rower Gavin Cooper.
“Johnathan Thurston and Darren Lockyer were big ones but there are a heap of players I looked up to who I get to play against now which is pretty special,” Dunn told NRL.com.
“Being able to play with Johnno last year was pretty special and even blokes likes Gavin Cooper and Morgs [Michael Morgan], it’s pretty awesome to be around them.
“I’m starting to get my head around the fact that I’ve got a spot here. Trying to get that realisation I guess.”
Key to Dunn’s inclusion in the 17 to start the season has been a continual physical transformation over the past two pre-seasons.
Shoulder reconstructions in each of the past two years have somewhat stemmed the muscle gains he is seeking to play in the forwards week to week in the NRL for the Mackay Brothers junior.
“I’m still getting my head around that. That’s probably been my biggest struggle for me, putting on the kilos and carrying it,” Dunn said.
“I’ll keep working on that in the next pre-season and try and do it again. I’m trying to put on good weight. I can put on bad weight pretty easily so just trying to eat the right things and do the work in the gym.
“I’m always eating after training, trying to eat lots of good food and a few extra gym sessions.
“I started in 20s at about 89kg and I’m just over 100 now so I’ve been able to put on kilos through the years pretty easily as I’ve had a growth spurt.”
Inspired by the NRL deeds of his former Cowboys under-20s teammates in Kalyn Ponga, Viliame Kikau, Brandon Smith and Coen Hess, Dunn’s mix of size and skill provides coach Paul Green with a handy attacking weapon on the bench.
“He put himself in the game there and some things happened around him,” Green said after the loss to the Broncos.
“He played a bit of five-eighth as a kid but he’s a big kid and he’s a footballer.”
Hess and Dunn played together in the Cowboys 20s in 2015 and 2016 and Hess has no doubt that getting a taste of the NRL in two games last season was all the motivation Dunn needed.
“Dunny trained the house down in the pre-season. He bulked up a bit and his versatility probably got him over the line for selection in the end,” Hess said.
“He’s really come into his own. He really enjoyed the pre-season, loved a bit of hard yakka. That’s probably where he impressed most and I think he is really relishing the opportunity that he’s been given.
“He just really enjoys the full-time football life and probably sees it as a massive privilege.”