Euan Aitken has credited his rivalry with Zac Lomax for St George Illawarra's right centre spot as motivation for him replicating the form that catapulted him into representative contention last year.
Aitken was under consideration for State of Origin honours in 2018 but feared he may lose his starting position this year after the emergence of Lomax during the 2018 finals.
However, the 23-year-old overcame the pre-season challenge from Lomax and has taken on the added responsibility of helping Ben Hunt to organise St George Illawarra’s new-look right-edge defence.
"A lot of people probably thought I wasn't going to start round one, to be honest," Aitken said. "That's the mentality I had to the start of my pre-season.
"I didn't finish the year in the squad, playing footy, so as far as I was concerned he was starting ahead of me and it gave me really good motivation for the pre-season to rip in and really put my best foot forward.
"I ended up getting that starting spot in round one and it gave me a lot of confidence to keep building on that."
Lomax was initially viewed by St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor as a winger but his approach to the battle with Aitken has resulted in him earning the bench utility role for Sunday night's clash with Newcastle after Matt Dufty's elevation to fullback in place of injured captain Gareth Widdop.
Aitken was the Dragons' player of the match in the opening-round loss to North Queensland and he finished on top in a personal duel with Jack Bird during last week's 25-24 win over Brisbane.
With inexperienced second-rower Jacob Host defending on his inside and rookie Fijian winger Mikaeale Ravalawa outside him, Aitken is a senior member of St George Illawarra's right edge.
"Hunty has obviously got a lot more years on me but I am second in charge in a way," Aitken said. "This is my fifth season and I have got to take a bit of ownership to help him in defence.
"I feel really confident with those two blokes [Host and Ravalawa] on my edge. The combination with Mika is going really well. I am really enjoying playing with him, he is strong and I love the way he starts our sets.
"He is still learning, I think he has only been playing footy for three years so it is crazy when you consider that and he is only 21 so he is a young kid learning the trade."
McGregor said Aitken had earned his place with his form last season and the way he performed in the pre-season.
"I don't think he was under pressure but there is a person in the club who is a very good player and he is a right centre as well," McGregor said in reference to Lomax.
"The way they went about their training in the pre-season gave them both a good opportunity to play round one and Euan trialled better so he got the first shot at it."
Lomax will play off the interchange as cover for any of the outside backs but he could also be used in the back row or at lock.
"I am pretty similar to Kurt Mann's role that he had last year," Lomax said. "I will play off the bench and if someone goes down in the backs I will just jump on wherever best suits the team so I have got to be ready to go on any minute.
"Obviously I have trained mostly at centre and a little bit of wing and fullback but I am happy to play any position on the field."