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The reluctant prop: How will to win turned Josh Kerr around

Josh Kerr says it was a shock to the system the first time he was asked to play in the forwards in the Storm under-20s but the Dragon has now set his sights on one day representing Queensland as a front-rower.

The Brisbane product came through the Broncos' system as a Redcliffe Dolphins junior playing wing, fullback or centre and relying on just being "two feet taller" than everyone else.

Scouted by the Storm while still in high school, the 197cm 24-year-old was unimpressed to be told to do a pre-season in the second row, only to be told in round one he was actually playing prop.

A lot of hard work between then and now turned the Indigenous All Stars front-rower into one of the form players of the Dragons' 2020 pre-season and hunting more responsibility.

Kerr said some home truths delivered from the likes of Tariq Sims plus the reward of doing something positive for the team turned things around for him.

Josh Kerr sends the ball out wide during the NRL Nines in Perth.
Josh Kerr sends the ball out wide during the NRL Nines in Perth. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

A reluctant forward

"When I was in high school I signed a development training deal at the Storm," he said.

"I was playing centre and doing well for my age group but I was always two foot taller than everyone in my age group. When I got older they wanted me to move into the back row."

The first challenge there was putting on some bulk, and even that didn't go smoothly at first.

"When I was younger, I sort of knew you had to eat all your vegetables and proteins but wasn't really sure how it all worked, I just knew I had to eat heaps so I was eating everything and it was probably all the bad food, chips and snacks," he laughed.

"I remember I was 95 kilos as a centre or fullback and pumped up to 105 kilos just eating over a year. It wasn't the best way to do it. Then I went down for my first pre-season at Melbourne and I was behind everyone, it was shocking. You learn as you get older.

"It's weird now, you feel the effects. If I do eat a shit meal I feel it affect my body whereas if I eat something healthy I know mentally I've eaten healthy, my body feels healthy."

Kerr managed to get in shape but there was another curve ball headed his way.

"I did the whole pre-season in the back row for Melbourne and before our first game the coach said, 'I'll chuck you in the front row and see how you go', and I thought 'what?' but I just haven't looked back I guess," he added.

Josh Kerr takes on Penrith in round two.
Josh Kerr takes on Penrith in round two. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The difference in what is required going from centre to prop, he quickly learned, is stark.

"The outside backs is a lot more decision-making that can lead to the opposition getting a try but the middle is so constant, I had no idea how hard it was until I was thrown in there," he said.

"You have to respect both positions but in terms of physicality and mental toughness, the middle, you can't rest, you can't stop, there are players out there who will pick you apart. Not everyone can do it.

"It's such a different grind in the middle, a constant mental grind. I'm lucky I've had people around me that have got me to work hard to be able to do it."

Getting in the grind

So when did Kerr actually begin to relish the task?

"Oh man, I hate the middle hey – if it was up to me I'd be in the centres!" he smiled.

But the turning point did come during that period in the Storm under 20s.

"When I first got asked to play middle I was kicking stones a bit, I was a bit stressed going into under 20s playing before first grade thinking people would see a big guy in the middle not knowing what he's doing.

"I hated it for so long then I started getting fitter. There were points in games where we didn't have our captain or senior players, guys like Joe Stimson and Jake Turpin, some games they weren't playing and I was in the middle.

"Because I was a big guy they were looking to me to generate something, whether it's a run up the middle and a quick play-the-ball. I sort of relished that - then over time I thought it's not about me, it's about the team.

"Before then I was a big tall guy getting away doing what I had to do in the centres but when I was in the middle I got a taste of what's best for the team. At the end of the day all I want to do is win and I put all that other stuff behind me."

Kerr says while some focus on how many metres or tackles a player has made, within the team it's the little things that lift the side that count - like a tough carry and fast play-the-ball with the team under pressure.

"I want to make sure I'm working as hard as I can to find my front; to get up and see what happens after is the best feeling," he said.

Over time I thought it's not about me, it's about the team.

Josh Kerr

"I can't explain the feeling of when you do something good for the team and the boys give you a pat on the back. All you care about when you come into the game is you want to impress the older boys and make them proud of you.

"You might not get the recognition and that's fine by me but as long as we win, that's all I care about."

A bad time for a break

Kerr is coming off his strongest pre-season, with impressive performances in the All Stars and Nines. With the likes of Korbin Sims and Cam McInnes absent for the opening two rounds, Kerr played close to 40 minutes in each game, tallying 205 metres and 47 tackles in the two games.

The shutdown came at a poor time for plenty of fringe players trying to justify a regular NRL starting spot and Kerr is in that bracket, with Sims and McInnes among the injured players set to return in round three and momentum lost.

"It's been tough, working as hard as I could in the pre-season," Kerr said.

"I got a taste of first grade last year and I knew that's what I wanted to do so I made sure in the off-season I worked as hard as I could and sacrificed so much.

"To put all that hard work in then getting that opportunity, I thought 'wow, hard work does pay off'. I sacrificed a lot to make sure I was there then getting cut short I thought, 'far out'. I knew the virus wasn't going to last forever.

"I'm in better shape now than I was in that pre-season because I've been training as much as I can, nearly every day, doing something to make sure when it does come back I want to be where I left off at a minimum (fitness-wise).

"With Cam McInnes and Korbin coming back it does shuffle the middle of the pack. For me it's uncertainty of who they move from the bench and if Korbin does come back and play where does he sit. It's very competitive and I want to make sure I'm pushing to stay there for the rest of the season."

Indigenous All Stars forward Josh Kerr slips a pass away.
Indigenous All Stars forward Josh Kerr slips a pass away. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Lofty goals

Kerr has an option in his favour for 2021 but isn't looking at that until he's had a chance to play some more footy.

"It's not always about money, it's more about opportunity. At the end of it the money comes," he said.

"I've had goals since I was a kid but I've never had the goal of 'I wish I was a million-dollar player', it's more I want to play State of Origin, play for Australia, be a guy that plays 200, 300 games for their club. It's more the legacy I want to leave behind.

"I used to sit there and watch it on TV with my dad and wonder ... my biggest goal as a kid was to debut but just to have Ray Warren say my name. It's a little thing but it was incredible."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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